April 13, 2013

Who The Hell Is Paul Willis?

The home portion of the Washington Wizards 2012-2013 schedule came to an unceremonious ending last night with a lackluster 97-86 loss to the also struggling Philadelphia 76ers. After reeling off nine consecutive wins at Verizon Center, the team dropped its last two to New York and Philly to end the season with a 22-19 home record. Not bad, but not great.

There's no doubt in my mind when the Wizards season comes to a close on Wednesday on the road against the Chicago Bulls that this wasn't the season I'd hoped for back in October. But injuries to John Wall and Nenê early in the year and then struggles with chemistry and getting John back into playing shape just dug us too deep an early season hole that we couldn't recover from. But while my team's performance on the court may have been below my expectations, there's one part of the game experience this year that far exceeded my pre-season expectations: the Chipotle Burrito Dash!

There is no shortage of in game entertainment at an NBA game. The league is definitely erring on the side of caution when it comes to crowd engagement, whether it be the kiss cam, t-shirt toss, halftime shows, dunking, audience contests or anything else they have going on during timeouts and other stoppages in play. There's no way they are going to let a minute pass without something to distract you. And most of this stuff I absolutely hate. But not the Burrito Dash, for one simple reason: if it works out correctly for me, I end up with a free Chipotle meal.

Oooh! Oooh! Me! Me! Me! The beginning of the Burrito Dash.
I can't remember when the Burrito Dash first appeared at Verizon Center but it's been years and years now. Back when they started this promotion, they used to hand (and sometimes toss which could be messy) actual burritos to people in the crowd. I believe, based on the reaction of one guy in front of us many years ago, that the burritos they gave away contained only beans and rice so if you "won" the Burrito Dash you ended up with a very filling, probably not as tasty as a personally ordered Chipotle meal in your hands when you likely weren't hungry anyway.

But then a few years ago, they changed the contest. Instead of an actual burrito, you got handed or tossed (way easier to toss these) a shrink wrapped Chipotle t-shirt compressed into the shape and size of a burrito and wrapped in foil. The t-shirt is OK, but the real prize in underneath the rubber band around the t-shirt: a coupon (in farmer trading card form which is awesome) for a free meal at Chipotle. There are a lot of opportunities each game for me to wave my arms, jump in the air or dance during a Wizards game and I decline to participate in all these opportunities except for the Burrito Dash. That coupon is worth yelling, screaming and waving my arms to get one tossed my way.

The farmer trading card (aka coupon) is the real prize here.
With Friday night's loss, I closed the book on 39 Wizards home games this season at Verizon Center. 29 of those games were witnessed from my season seats in Section 109 just five rows behind the hockey boards (I spent the other ten games elsewhere in VC far out of the reach of t-shirts tossed into the crowd). Of those 29 contests, I walked out of six of those games with a Chipotle coupon which I consider to be an excellent success rate. Better than one out of every five games I came away from a Wizards game with a free delicious Chipotle burrito. That alone is worth the price of admission to those six games.

The reward for me is consistent: a burrito with cilantro-lime rice, black beans, either chicken or carnitas, tomatillo-red chile salsa, sour cream and cheese.  I always get the same thing and I absolutely LOVE it every time. I don't know how they make some of this stuff taste so good. I wish they would publish their cilantro-lime rice and tomatillo-red chile salsa recipes. I've tried and failed at duplicating the salsa a couple of times; that sweet and spicy stuff alone is well worth the block and half walk from my home. I'd probably crawl for that salsa if I had to.

I just finished my last meal redemption about an hour ago and I'm now all out of coupons and I just have to say thank God for this place! I'll be back at Verizon Center next fall jumping up and down to get more t-shirts and coupons tossed my way.  In the meantime, I'll be gladly paying for my meals.

The payoff! I'd eat these every day if I thought it was healthy.
Oh, I almost forgot the subject of this post. Paul Willis is a hog farmer (sorry...hog farming crusader) and supplier of pork for Chipotle to turn into delicious carnitas. I think it's fantastic that Chipotle recognizes their suppliers and puts them on coupons masquerading as trading cards complete with foil accents. I'd keep these as part of my Wizards card collection if they weren't tradable for food.

April 7, 2013

Ravenous Pigs And Rusty Spoons

The trip to Orlando that I took last weekend to watch the Wizards and kick back for a few days was one of the least planned trips in recent memory for me. There was minimal research completed; the only maps I took were four letter size printouts from Google Maps; and I didn't really understand when the places I wanted to visit were open until I checked on my iPad the day before. I just figured vacationing in Orlando wouldn't be that complicated and wouldn't require the down-to-the-minute scheduling that I usually employ when traveling.

The lack of planning theme for this trip extended to picking restaurants, but for a totally different reason. My memories of Orlando food from my last vacation there in 1999 involved chain sit-down restaurants similar to Applebee's and Chili's or unspectacular one off establishments like the places in downtown Celebration. Call me cynical on this one, but my expectations of dining in the Orlando area was that I would do well to steer clear of Sizzler and Ponderosa type steakhouses and just take my chances with whatever I could find.

Planning where to eat on vacation is important to me, mostly because I have high expectations for restaurant food. When I first started traveling on my own after college, I sought out brewpubs or breweries that served food since the food didn't matter much to me, but the beer was really important. Now that I can cook fairly good food on a regular basis, I try to find restuarants which will serve food equal to or better than what I can make at home. This has proved to be a tall order on some trips and lately I've turned more and more to food critics and food bloggers for guidance. But on this trip I didn't do any of that; I just took my chances. So imagine my surprise when I found not one, but two, really excellent restaurants on back to back days, making this quick trip down south a culinary trip to remember.

Right before the Wizards game Friday night, we ate at The Rusty Spoon, which was literally the first restaurant we saw after exiting the parking garage we found. Total random choice. Dinner consisted of stuffed eggs, a lamb sandwich and a couple (ok...three) Bell's Oberon ales. The eggs were a nice starter, filled with herbs, pickles and sundried tomatoes. Not a deviled egg  per se but a nice salty and sweet twist on a deviled egg dish.

The lamb sandwich was one of the best sandwiches I've had in a while, served with an onion-golden raisin jam and homemade ricotta salata on a toasted Moroccan roll. It was sweet and buttery without being greasy, the jam added some wonderful sweetness and the ricotta lightened the whole dish up. I was completely not prepared to blog about this meal so didn't take any pictures but trust me, the sandwich looked as good as it tasted. If I lived in Orlando, I'd hit this place up a lot before basketball games. Better than anything around Verizon Center that I have been to. If you are ever in downtown Orlando, I recommend you head over here for a meal.

The Ravenous Pig's open kitchen.
But before and after we found The Rusty Spoon, we found The Ravenous Pig. I literally picked this place off a double sided list of restaurant names we were handed by our hotel's front desk. Another total random choice. The list had me at "ravenous", "pig" and "gastropub". After walking for a little while and discovering it wasn't within walking distance, we headed back to the hotel, got in the car and drove to Winter Park, finally finding the place in a nondescript sort of strip mall type building close to the road. Not inspiring on the outside.

The interior, however, is well designed and light filled so it looked like a good spot to have lunch once we got inside. The menu had some interesting choices and the beer list had some great brews. Because the starters seemed more appetizing than the main dishes, we went with four of those: deviled eggs, house-made soft pretzels, rock shrimp tacos and smoked oyster hushpuppies. The eggs were a good start, although not as good in my opinion as the eggs we would have the next day at The Rusty Spoon; a little more salumi bits would have added more pork and salt and more taste. The pretzels were tasty but overall probably the least impressive dish we ordered; the taleggio-porter fondue served with the pretzels went really well with the shoestring fries we would order later.

The Ravenous Pig's beer list. Take a wild guess what I went for here. Hard to pass up Ommegang beers.
But the tacos and hushpuppies were real stars. Both struck a wonderful balance between sweet, creamy, fatty, acidic and spicy. The rock shrimp were battered but not too much to stop the sweetness of the shrimp shining through. The avocado creme fraiche drizzled on top was creamy and the cabbage slaw and pickled jalapenos added crunch and heat.

I've always been a little fascinated with hushpuppies and so have had them almost every chance I get and I've always been disappointed; I even made some disappointing ones at home once. They are completely American; there's no way we have anything like these things in my homeland of England although I probably first had hushpuppies ironically at Arthur Treacher's. The Ravenous Pig's hushpuppies justified my years of eating bad deep fried balls of cornmeal. They were moist, not dry, and sweet from kernels of corn in the mix. The orange-ghost chile aioli and hot sauce gastrique added some heat but didn't kill your palate, like anything with ghost chiles can do, and the pickled green tomatoes added some acidity and lightened the dish.

Our four starters were delicious enough that we actually ordered a lamb B.L.T. (a little bread heavy) with shoestring fries to top the meal off before we waddled back to our hotel with that lunch as the last meal of the day.

Shrimp and grits! With Ommegang's Rare Vos, of course.
As if lunch wasn't enough (and it wasn't), we decided a second Ravenous Pig trip on our three day trip was totally appropriate so we returned Saturday night for a quick dinner at their back bar in front of the restaurant's open kitchen. The octopus appetizer with hints of chorizo, harrisa and chile was a perfect lead in to a creamy and sweet shrimp and grits dish with a twist. Smaller royal red shrimp were used rather than larger head on jumbo shrimp I'm used to and the tomato chutney and chorizo oil made the dish different enough that I was glad I had it.

And to top the meal off, I had dessert: a cold coconut rice pudding with blueberry compote in the bottom of the dish with a scoop of chantilly cream resting on caramelized sugar cap (a la creme brûlée). Just incredible!

I'm not sure that I've been more pleasantly surprised with my choice of eats on a trip ever. When I get back to Orlando next, I'll definitely find my way back to one or both of these places for a second or third go-round. My opinion of the culinary scene in central Florida is changed forever and for the better. If anybody reading this is in the area, please check out one of these places. You won't be disappointed.

The remains of lunch (from left to right): empty hushpuppies bowl, Ommegang Rare Vos, orange-ghost chile aioli (behind the Ommegang), empty rock shrimp tacos plate, hushpuppy ready to be eaten, taleggio-porter fondue metal ramekin, whole grain mustard ramekin, shoestring fries.

April 4, 2013

Orlando Tourist Alert!

The first time I went on a road trip to watch my beloved Washington Wizards play ball was 2007 when I went to Minnesota to watch the Wiz play the Timberwolves on a Sunday in February. That trip was supposed to be a one day affair, flying into Minneapolis just before tip off and getting out of town a few hours later. But mother nature had other ideas and sent heavy snows to the D.C. area which closed all the local airports and forced an unplanned overnight stay up north for me and my friend Mike.

The night we got stranded found us at a bar talking to our bartender about living in Minnesota. The next morning we explored Minneapolis on foot, walking down the Mississippi River, checking out the Mall of America and discovering the wonderful art deco Minneapolis Post Office. That walk around town got me thinking that maybe trips to see the Wizards would be better if they featured a little exploration of whatever city we were visiting and a night or two stay rather just getting into and out of town as soon as possible. Since that 2007 trip, I've made four other trips to see the Wizards on the road and I've stayed overnight on all four, with the most recent being last weekend when I took a four day trip to Orlando to watch the Wizards take on (and lose to) the home Magic.

The entrance to Kennedy Space Center, with the Atlas and Redstone rockets used in the Mercury program on the right.
Of all the places in the United States, Orlando has to be THE tourist mecca, doesn't it? I can't imagine the place existing anywhere close to the way it does without all the tourist attractions that have been built there. As such, we had no problem filling a couple of days being tourists like everyone else down there. While it was really really tough to pass up The Holy Land Experience, we decided to spend our two whole days in central Florida at Disney's Animal Kingdom and the Kennedy Space Center. And I'm serious about The Holy Land Experience. I think it would be fantastic to see what that's all about, although let's face it, there's no way I'm getting my money's worth there.

While I was excited to go back to Animal Kingdom, which I had visited shortly after it opened in 1999, I was really looking forward to a return trip to Kennedy Space Center (abbreviated as KSC, which just sounds too much like KFC). I was last there in 1980 with my family on what was probably our first real fancy vacation after we moved to the United States. According to my mom, it cost $800 for all four of us to travel to and stay in the Orlando area including passes to Disney World (at that time they didn't have any of the other parks) and transportation to Kennedy airport in New York. I was a lot younger then and have very little memory of that trip (other than sitting on the Dumbo ride for my sister's birthday fireworks on July 4 - random, I know) and none at all of going to Kennedy Space Center. At that time in my life my understanding of the space exploration program was that at some point men had landed on the moon but pretty much every kid is fascinated by space travel and astronauts, right? The one thing I know for sure happened last time I visited Kennedy Space Center is that I picked a very stylish t-shirt, shown below on me at Niagara Falls the following summer. Love the shorts, socks, hair and digital watch; they all complement my brown sneakers beautifully.

I'd like to think that I understand a lot more about the United States' space program now than I did in the early 1980s, although admittedly most of my knowledge is based on watching the movies The Right Stuff about 50 times (my favorite movie of all time) and Apollo 13 about five times. I thought it would be interesting to flesh out my knowledge of the Gemini and Apollo programs a little and try to get those on par with what The Right Stuff taught me about the Mercury program. As an aside, I only agreed to go with my dad to see The Right Stuff if he would take me to see The Osterman Weekend; he definitely picked the better of the two movies to go see.

Kennedy Space Center today features museum buildings, an outdoor rockets display, two IMAX theaters, a shuttle simulator ride and some sort of Angry Birds attraction (which we skipped). But the highlight for me was the bus tour of the entire facility. The tour takes you around the Vehicle Assembly Building (where they build the rockets), down the path that the mobile crawler uses to transport the rockets to the launch pads and over to an observation gantry where you can get a distant view of the launch pads and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where the Mercury and Gemini launches took place. Kennedy was built specifically for the Apollo program because the launch pads at Cape Canaveral couldn't accommodate the Saturn V rockets that would be needed for lunar missions. We also saw a lot of alligators along the way hanging out in the water along the sides of the roads. I'm not sure I'd be thrilled about working at a place where they have wild animals that can eat a person just hanging out.

Halfway through the bus tour, there is a stop at the Apollo / Saturn V Center, which contains the control room used during the Apollo 8 launch, the mission that first orbited the moon, and a life size Saturn V rocket, all thirty plus stories in height on its side. The exhibits articulate pretty effectively the process of a lunar mission and the sheer size of the Saturn V rocket is impressive. It's just amazing to me that man could conceive of and execute sending someone to the moon and back, especially considering what crude (compared to today) equipment they had available to them in the 1960s. It's interesting to note that every section of the Saturn V rocket appeared to be manufactured by a different defense contractor. Our government at work, I guess.

If I had another opportunity to go back to Kennedy Space Center, I think I'd take the Vehicle Assembly Building tour. I think it would be amazing to see the space they assemble the rockets prior to launch. But the basic bus tour gave so much information, it was definitely the way to go for an almost first time visitor.

Of course no trip to Kennedy Space Center would be complete without some freeze dried ice cream. I can't remember how I got my hands on my first freeze dried ice cream all those years ago (it may have been at Kennedy) but there's something about it which is both awful and awesome at the same time. So before heading out of the park and back to Orlando I treated myself to a cookies and cream freeze dried ice cream sandwich. Delicious. Actually not all that delicious but it brought back memories so it was totally worth it.

And in memory of my trip here in the early 1980s and that awesome photo of me at Niagara Falls, I felt I needed to pick up a new Kennedy Space Center t-shirt and strike the pose in front of the Mercury program rockets. I'm a little bigger and have a little less hair on my head, but I'm thinking I look a little more stylish today, although I'm probably way off base here. It's probably just the Ray-Bans. Anyway, I'm glad I'm around thirty some years later to do this again.

April 3, 2013

Do The Math

With tonight's loss to the Toronto Raptors, a game we were leading by 16 points in the second quarter, the Washington Wizards are now mathematically eliminated from the 2012-2013 NBA playoffs. With this death knell milestone passed, of course, all hope for the current season is officially lost. This is the moment when the disappoinment of another failed season hits home but at the same time, it also releases the pressure a little and allows the start of the process of moving on to the offseason. It definitely takes some of the agony out of losing for the next few weeks (and there will be some losing) but it also destroys some of the elation of winning. Probably more so the former rather than the latter.

This is the fifth consecutive season the Wizards have not reached the postseason. It is the longest streak without a playoff appearance since I became a season ticket holder, although that is more a matter of luck and timing than any sort of historical playoff run by the franchise. At the beginning of this season, there were five teams in the NBA with playoff droughts equal to or longer than the Wizards. That number will surely dwindle to three when this season comes to a close. One of those five, the Brooklyn Nets, has already clinched a playoff berth and the Golden State Warriors will surely wrap one up very soon. That leaves the Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves with equal or longer streaks of missing postseason play. Minnesota's absence is the longest at nine seasons.

Now that the season is dead, there will inevitably be calls from fans and pundits for the team to tank and secure the greatest possible chance of getting a top three draft pick. I'm not one of those. Winning the NBA Draft Lottery is total luck and drafting the right player to secure the future of the franchise is, in my opinion, an educated crap shoot. Who would have predicted three years ago that Paul George would have been the first from his draft class to make an All-Star appearance? No way would the Wizards have ever selected George number one overall instead of John Wall. There's no such thing as a sure thing in the NBA Draft. If there were, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker and Kenneth Faried wouldn't have been selected 21st, 28th and 22nd overall in their respective draft years. I believe more in karma than I do in the ability of NBA general managers to accurately project the success of any given draft pick. Karma matters! Don't tank!

The only good thing I have to say about this moment is that at least it came later in the season than the last few years. I'm still having difficulty getting used to finding the Wizards this far up the standings. There's always next year. I'm still looking to that 2008-2009 Thunder team for hope.

Tuesday's home win against Chicago, our eighth straight W at home.

April 1, 2013

Sunshine State Hoops: Magic And Wizards

From 2007 to 2010, I attended four Wizards road games, an average of one per year. With my team falling on hard times over the past couple of seasons, however, my motivation to shell out some cash to see my underperforming Wizards on the road (where they underperformed worse than they did at home) had waned. But with our resurgence earlier this calendar year, I decided it was about time to set out and see my favorite team in a new city. So this past weekend, I spent a few days in sunny Orlando sandwiched around the focal point of the trip, the Wizards - Magic game Friday night.

The first time I took a Wizards road trip, the destination was governed by the television schedule, or more precisely by when the Wizards were NOT on television. Since that first trip to Minnesota and sort of unbelievably, every Wizards road game has been televised, so my choice of road games has been decided by a few other factors. My standard formula for picking a road game is a combination of chance to win (so picking an opponent with a not so good record); availability and price of lower level tickets on the bench side of the court (important for getting on TV); proximity and availability of non-stop flights; and day of the week, with preference for a Friday, Saturday or Sunday game, with Sunday afternoon being ideal. This year an analysis of the schedule pointed to one of two destinations: Brooklyn or Orlando. Since I'd been to New York a lot recently and considering the weather in Orlando in late March vs. Brooklyn in early March, I opted to hop on a flight down to Florida.

Displays on the concourse lauding Dwight Howard's accomplishments. Wonder how fans feel now?
In 2009, just four years ago, the Orlando Magic rode All-Star center Dwight Howard and a bevy of three point shooters to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games. But during the subsequent offseason, they traded their starting backcourt that got them to the Finals to the then New Jersey Nets for Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson and went downhill from there, losing in the Conference Finals the next year and following that season with two straight first round playoff exits. This year, the Magic started the season 12-13, an unexpectedly strong start considering they traded Dwight Howard to the Lakers for spare parts in the offseason. But the years of poor management and bad trades caught up with them and they have dropped quickly to the second worst team in the NBA. The Wizards meanwhile were the last team in the NBA to win a game this season but since January have rocketed past the Magic and sit comfortably ahead of them in the Southeast Division.

This was my fourth trip to Orlando. I went once shortly after we moved to the United States with my parents and sister then returned with my sister in 1999 after I finished the Architectural Record Exam to get my architecture license. The primary focus of those two trips was to visit various Disney and other amusement park properties. My third trip was to speak at a conference a couple of years ago and involved a taxi ride straight to the hotel/conference center and a ride back to the airport two days later. None of these trips involved visiting downtown Orlando. In fact I wasn't even sure there WAS a downtown Orlando. The Magic play downtown so this time I explored somewhere new in addition to seeing an NBA game in an 11th different arena (in case anyone other than me is keeping track, which they are probably not).

In past road trips, I have purchased tickets on StubHub, which I absolutely love, but they didn't have the exact tickets I wanted so I tried out nbatickets.com and got some great seats: first row above the tunnel to the Wizards' locker room. The seats were on the side facing the TV cameras and we were guaranteed to have nobody sitting in front of us. After a quick meal downtown (awesome lamb sandwich at The Rusty Spoon), I headed over to the almost brand new Amway Center for the game.

Pre-game photo with two of the Magic Dancers. Yes, they covered the Washington on my jersey on purpose.
The Amway Center is, I believe, the newest arena in the NBA. It bears a striking resemblance to other recently constructed NBA arenas I have visited around the country except for the fact that the court is placed on grade rather than being sunken into the ground, presumably because there is water right below grade in pretty much the entire state of Florida. I like Amway's wide concourse areas (unlike Verizon Center's which are constrained by D.C.'s tight city grid) which allows space for exhibits about the Magic's history and the large bar area at the end zone similar to VC's Acela Club but without being restricted to those with club level access in D.C. The arena is downtown, which I love, in an area of town packed with restaurants and bars. My experience getting to and getting into the Amway Center was all positive, including the pregame picture with the Magic Dancers.

Pre-game warmups. Didn't get much more competitive after this.
After all the positive pre-game vibes though, I was definitely set up for a let down after tip-off. Despite the Magic missing starters Glen Davis, Arron Afflalo and Nikola Vucevic and even after starting point guard Jameer Nelson went down in the first half, the Wizards couldn't manage to contain a team that was clearly inferior to them. We allowed the Magic to open up a 12 point halftime lead behind a clear and quite honestly unacceptable discrepancy in field goal percentage and assists. We made the Magic's Tobias Harris look like an All-Star in the first half. Team basketball, solid rebounding and defense seemed to be concepts we didn't quite understand.

It got better after halftime for a while when the Wizards erased the halftime deficit and took the lead about eight minutes after the break but then apathy or whatever else it was set in and we ended up playing the same type of ball that we did in the first half, ultimately losing by only five in what should have been a very winnable game against a weakened opponent. It was a bad performance all around. Nobody on that team should feel good about that game, including John Wall, who managed to score 31 points but only dished out two assists. This experience, by the way, drops my record in Wizards road games to a paltry 1-4 and at least two of those games we should have won going away. So much for my formula for picking winnable games.

The game wasn't a total loss. I had a great time and this one loss isn't going to be the difference between making the playoffs and spending the postseason at home. One of the things I love the most about traveling to Wizards games is the people I meet and how basketball fits into their lives, whether it's a cabbie in Chicago debating the merits of Michael Jordan's and John Starks' dunks or hanging out talking hoops in general with the Wizards' coaches and scouts in Vegas.

After watching pregame warm ups, I roamed around the concourse and picked up a beer ($7.75 for 24 oz. of Budweiser, way better than Verizon Center's $8.00 for 20 oz.). When I got back to my seat, there were two kids (Joe and Sam) sitting next to me dressed in Magic stuff holding #kevinseraphinlife (Kevin Seraphin's Twitter and Instagram hashtags) signs and yelling to get Kevin's attention at the top of their lungs. We eventually got Kevin's attention and a thumbs up. Talking with those guys about the game we were watching, the NBA and the Magic's and Wizards' chances in the next few years mitigated the effects of the loss a little. These kids knew every player in the NBA (including Twitter addresses) and love the sport and their Orlando Magic. I respect fans who don't abandon their teams in lean times and I appreciate Joe and Sam's perspectives on fairweather fans like all those Oklahoma City Thunder "fans" who have appeared from seemingly nowhere. I hope the two of those guys stick it out over the next few years because I don't see the Magic getting back to the playoffs any time soon.

Looking forward to my next road trip next season.

The kids are alright: my new friends Joe (left) and Sam (right). Check out the gold Arenas jersey on Joe.