Tuesday, June 19, 2007

IEM Session #2- Battered and Fried- A Fish & Chips O.D.

To learn what this is all about, you really should read the IEM introduction, if you haven’t already.

I approached Inhuman Eating Machine (IEM) session #2 as if I was about to jump out of the tenth story of a burning building into one of those net-things the fire department uses. Even though I knew I must proceed, the prospect terrified me nonetheless. I had chosen fish and chips this time and I knew this could possibly be the greatest struggle I would face in my IEM career.

I have a very strong stomach. I willingly partake in foods spicier than most mortals, I eat street food in undeveloped countries, and I eat too much of everything. But despite all of this, I rarely, if ever, experience heartburn or an upset stomach. And I can count on one hand how many times I have vomited post toddler-hood. However, fried chicken and fried fish are 2 items that I cannot ingest with impunity. If I eat larger-than-average portions of either of those items, I start to feel not-so-fresh. It’s as if those items drain me of my life-force. They quash my chi. They are my Kryptonite.

Although I dearly love both fried fish and chicken, they are my nemesis when it comes to overindulging. But rather than shy away from these items, I decided I needed to confront one of them early in my IEM career to prove to myself that I could not be beaten by any food! I knew I would eventually have to eat one or both of these foods if I was to be taken seriously, so I picked fish and chips to get it out of the way. I couldn’t bear to have it hanging over my head like some hideous albatross. My friends, the experience wound up being a nightmare that I do not wish to re-live any time soon. After this horrific experience, will I ever do a fried chicken session? I imagine I will have to do one eventually, but after what I went through with the fish and chips session, the chicken will have to wait a while- perhaps a long while.

They say that fish is brain food- it makes you smart. Hopefully, all the fish I ate on IEM #2 has made me a little wiser, because doing an eating session with fried fish was totally fucking idiotic.

EATING DAY: May 12, 2007

10:14am- Seabreeze Market and Deli- 598 University Ave. (Berkeley, CA)- $7.25

This store/restaurant is actually made up of 4 or 5 of those big containers they put on ships. They tore out some of the walls, put down a floor and voila- they had a business. The Sea Breeze is situated at the end of University Ave. next to the Berkeley Marina. The parking lot has great views of the bay and the San Francisco skyline. For seating, they have a counter “inside” and some picnic tables outside. The only problem is it gets windy out there, so if it’s a gusty day, you better bring a jacket.

The Sea Breeze specializes in steamed crabs and fried seafood in addition to the usual burgers and sandwiches. Since I figured I’d be eating a lot of catfish during that day’s session, I decided to try the cod for variety. The lady behind the counter was something else. Women like her work at soul food restaurants all over the south, but in the Bay Area, they just don’t exist. Since it was barely 10am, I asked her if I could order fish yet. She told me joyfully, “You can get whatever you want, honey!” This was my kind of place. Establishments that limit certain foods to certain times of day are doing a disservice to mankind. If I want fried fish at 10am, or pancakes at 6pm, why can’t I have them? Why is it that certain foods are served in the morning and others in the evening? There is NO good reason, my friends. Don’t tell me that folks naturally want lighter fare early in the morning, because it’s just not true. There is nothing light about bacon, sausage, pancakes, and ham and cheese omelets. If people really wanted something light for the first meal of the day, they’d eat a salad. Feh!

There’s a weird system at the Sea Breeze that I didn’t understand at first. After you order, the lady behind the counter gives you a ticket. You walk the ticket over to the cash register and pay. The lady at the register gives you a receipt. When your food is done, you walk back to the counter and give them the receipt. They literally will not give you the food without the receipt. It seemed like there were a few unnecessary steps in there. The fish was like no fish I’ve ever eaten from a restaurant, yet it seemed oddly familiar. Fried fish usually is either battered (a la Long John Silver’s) or it’s coated in seasoned cornmeal, soul-food style. The Sea Breeze fish wasn’t either of these. It was coated in a crunchy breadcrumb coating, sort of like what you find on chicken parmesan. And it was rectangular. The fish was very moist and flaky and it tasted fresh, but then it hit me. This fish- the coating and the shape- was like the fish they served in the cafeteria in grade school. It was like a big fish stick. I was enthralled. It was like they took school lunch fish and they made it delicious. The fish came with shoestring french fries that I think were fresh-cut. They were cooked exactly right- not too crispy, not too soggy. The condiment area had cocktail sauce and malt vinegar, but no tartar sauce. They may have had it behind the counter, but I always figure if they want me to have a condiment, I shouldn’t have to ask for it. I should eat the item the way they intended.

Since it was pretty windy and I had to get moving anyway, I took the food home and ate it there. It was a great meal and it brought back memories of the 3rd grade lunch room. As I ate, reminiscing about a time when I wasn’t beaten down by the evils of society, I began to realize one thing. Fish and chips are hot! You can’t tear through these things like you can with a hot dog, especially without tartar sauce to cool things down. I tried to do it and it left me with a mouthful of seared flesh. Despite my delicious elementary fish, I was starting to get scared.

12:41pm- L&S Super Burrito and Seafood- 326 E. 18th St. (Oakland, CA)- $5.95 w/soda

I used to live 2 blocks from this place from 1996-97. It used to be run by a couple of ladies who both looked like Mo’Nique from The Parkers had swallowed the mom from What’s Happening. They probably died of some obesity-related ailment. It used to be a soul-food seafood/bbq place, but now that it’s run by a Korean dude, it’s a soul-food seafood/burrito place. When I moved to Oakland in the mid 90’s, I was drawn aback by all of the multi-purpose restaurants you find here. Usually run by Chinese folks, it’s not uncommon to find a place that sells doughnuts, burgers, cold sandwiches, and Chinese food. Do these kinds of places exist outside of California? I’m starting to realize now that there are also a handful of places run by Koreans that do soul-food fried fish and burritos. I don’t know if I’m up to trying a burrito at one of these establishments (the menu says it comes with lettuce!), but L&S does the soul fish proud.

Like Sea Breeze, L&S was playing KISS-FM. First it was “Ladies Room” by Klymaxx; then they busted out “Bust a Move” and “P.Y.T.” This was perfect fish-eating music. I ordered the red snapper. There was a lot of it. It was in the usual cornmeal coating you find in the soul-food fish places in Oakland. I gather the owner probably acquired the recipe when he took over, because it was pretty similar to the stuff I’ve had at places like Vida’s, which is still owned by a little old black lady from Louisiana who moves slowly- very slowly. The coating was seasoned properly. It was a little salty, a little peppery- and they didn’t overdo it will the coating. It came with tartar sauce, little containers of hot sauce, and a couple of lemon wedges. Lemon? How classy! The fish wasn’t as moist and flaky as the cod from Sea Breeze, but snapper is a firmer fish in general. The steak fries they served were clearly frozen, but they cooked them right and there were plenty of them. I had ordered the regular portion, but with the pile of fish and fries and the 2 slices of wheat bread that came with the meal, this was more than enough food for most normal people. From 11-2, they even comp you a can of Red and White brand soda. I got the root beer. I don’t know where one buys this brand, but it was easily as good as Cragmont.

The owner saw me taking a photo of the food and jotting down my notes and he became excited as if I was Mr. Blackwell coming to check out his couture. His questions were cute at first, but it got kind of annoying after a while. I need to figure out a way to cloak my identity and make my note-taking and camerawork more low-key. I’m afraid that some proprietors may think I’m some sort of real food critic and they may start putting on their “A-game” just for me. That’s all well and good, but I don’t want them chintzing out when regular folks show up at their eatery due to my recommendation. L&S gave me a ton of food for a pittance and it was all great. If you are treated any differently, I’ll feel personally responsible.

2:50pm- H.Salt Esq. Authentic English Fish & Chips- 12929 San Pablo Ave (Richmond, CA)- $5.69

This place used to be a pretty huge chain. In fact, the first time I ever ate fish and chips was at an H. Salt in Houston, TX. That was long before I ever tried Long John Silver’s. I did some checking around and the chain has just a handful of stores left, almost exclusively in Southern California. The décor has seen better days. In addition to the chandeliers, which appeared to be part of the original atmosphere, they hung some fluorescent lamps from the ceiling- the kind you see in a body shop. But for some reason, the place was really dark, even though it was a sunny day. The tables have the connected seats of a fast-food place and several of the chair/table combos were broken in one way or another. The checkerboard floor had tiles missing. The whole place seemed like it was coated in a greasy film.

I ordered the regular 2-piece, trying in vain to pace myself before the fish and chips really started taking their toll. Much to my chagrin, each piece was massive and it was served with a huge pile of fresh cut fries. When I picked up my order there was a blue spray bottle on my tray along with my plate of food. At first, I thought this was Windex for cleaning my own table, but then I realized it was malt vinegar. Employing a spray bottle for maximum vinegar dispersion is a great idea, in theory. But when the bottle is blue and printed with “Super Kleen” on the side, it’s kind of unappetizing. I sprayed a little vinegar on my fish and then put the bottle on the floor so I wouldn’t see it and subconsciously start tasting window cleaner. The fish was the batter-dipped kind and it looks a lot like what you see at Lohn John’s, but the pieces are much larger. Maybe this is what “authentic English” style fish is like. It was incredibly moist and flaky and had lot of flavor. And it was hotter than napalm in my mouth. There was no way I was going to be able to scarf this meal without having to visit the burn unit. Even though this was a very heavy meal, it was surprisingly not too greasy-tasting.

I noticed that everybody that came in there was alone. They ordered alone and then they ate alone on the broken chairs in silence as I did. Is H. Salt merely too good to be shared with loved-ones, or is it just the "food of the loner"? The employees didn’t seem to go for chit-chat, either. The place was slow. The fry-cook listened to Ranchero music at very low volume on a portable radio and he frowned. The counter girl looked alternately at her manicured nails and out the window if a car with booming bass passed by. When customers did arrive, she conducted the transaction with a minimum of dialog and a distinct lack of pleasantries. The fish at H. Salt is amazing, but I highly suggest taking it to go. An extended meal in that place could lead one to suicide. In this restaurant, that would not allow light to enter it, I sat with my fellow silent diners and the dead-eyed employees. With the ever-increasing flu-like symptoms that 3 huge portions of grease-laden seafood had induced in me, I was almost ready to slit my wrists. At least at home, I could take a nap. By the way, H.Salt had a side order/appetizer called Veg-a-Bob. Anyone know what that is?

5:32pm- S&S Seafood- 4923 Telegraph Ave- (Oakland)- $8.95

I was able to do some shopping and run some other errands for a while. I wasn't as full as I when I had left H.Salt and I was ready to eat again, but I still felt as if my gastrointestinal system had been thrown out of a 6-story window. I'd eaten at S&S once, but it had bee at least a year. I believe they're run by the same Ethiopian family that runs the great Asmara Ethiopian restaurant on the next block, but they do the classic soul food-style fish and chips.

I tried to order the regular/small portion of buffalo, which is a fish similar to trout and carp that I'd heard was supposed to be pretty good, but the kid at the counter told me it wasn't good that day. Weird. Was it spoiled? Were they really out of it? If I wanted it anyway would they have let me? He told me to get the catfish instead, so I did. Even though the order was pretty pricey (S&S is in the up-and-coming Temescal area, after all), I was hoping for a snack-sized portion before I picked up the wife to do some night eating. The food came. I was totally screwed.

The portion consisted of at least six pieces of cornmeal-coated catfish on a hill of fries and 2 pieces of wheat bread. Even without the 3 other fish meals that day, this meal would've been a daunting task- and this was the small portion! I did some deep breathing and got to work. The fish was amazing. It was moist and flaky and not at all greasy. And the coating was very subtle. It enhanced the fish. It didn't try and overpower it, like some places try to do with catfish. I think the fries were probably frozen, but they were totally acceptable.

After about 3 planks of fish, I was in serious discomfort. Every delicious bite was a chore. I had to stand frequently to allow the food to move around and to be able to breathe properly. As I ate, I looked across Telegraph Ave. at Dona Tomas. There was a line almost a block long to get in there. It's a Mexican place, but it's not your usual taco and burrito place. It's "upscale' Mexican food, whatever that means. Everybody in line was white and ugly. I looked at the menu there once. For the price of one entree, the wife and I could eat a terrific meal in Fruitvale and still have money left over for ice cream. Can Dona Tomas be that good? And if it is, how come no Mexicans eat there? The idea of paying that much for Mexican food sickened me as much as the final piece of fish, which was STILL burning my mouth up.

I struggled to finish the last piece and the remaining fries by putting the whole thing on a piece of the bread in an attempt to cool everything off. I figured the bread was so insignificant, it probably couldn't fill me up any more than I already was. Somehow, I was able to get the entire thing down. I shuffled back to the car. And then it began. I started flatulating long, obnoxious explosions that reaked like a spilled grease trap. After S&S, I don't believe 5 minutes passed over the next 36 hours when I was not farting. The more fish I ate, the worse it got. This was a stupid, stupid thing I was doing.

7:56pm- Yorkshire Fish and Chips- 248 Grand Ave. (Oakland)- $6.99

After S&S, I picked up the wife and we went home. All I could do was lay on the couch, moan, fart, and watch TV. I think I may have dozed off for a while. Suddenly, I awoke and realized that I'd better get back to eating before all the fish places started to close.

I felt a little bit better than before, but I was exhausted like I had just flown on a 22-hour flight riding coach in a middle seat. We got to Yorkshire shortly before closing time. "Hollaback Girl" was playing on the radio. The owner said he'd be happy to serve us and he didn't even make us take it to go. The place has a pretty great selection of fish choices, so I picked the tilapia, thinking it might be a little lighter than catfish or snapper. Great choice. This fish was battered similarly to H. Salt, but the batter was darker. Perhaps the grease was older or maybe they cook it longer. Whatever it was, it was perfect. The fish was the most delicate I'd eat that day. This was pretty upscale tasting stuff (hello, Dona Tomas!), but it was cheap.

I've never been to England, but something about the way the fish was prepared seemed very authentic. The owner was some kind of Middle Easterner, so perhaps he'd lived in England for a while and learned their secrets. It came with fresh cut fries that were as good as the fish, plus a salad with greens, tomatoes, olives and some kind of vinaigrette. There was a derelict in the place who seemed to be bothering the proprietor. He came over and talked to us a for a second and the owner told him to leave us alone. The vagrant walked away for a minute. Then he came back and he handed me a can of Coke and said, "On the house, man." I don't know if he had bought the soda and was just being a kind crazy person, of if he had taken it from the cooler and had given it to me without paying. Either way, I drank that homeless soda with gusto to help put out the burn in my mouth.

Yorkshire closes at 8pm, and we were there until almost 8:20. The owner didn't seem pissed off at all. I'm going back there for sure. I don't know what it was about that place, but I wasn't any more full or sickened then when I entered. I hope the food is as satisfying when I haven't already eaten 4 portions of fish and chips already. As we walked to the car, the vagrant waved at us and shouted at a trio of well-dressed, possibly closeted, gay black men. (I saw an episode about them on Law and Order SVU.) He told them he was from Africa. The men asked him where in Africa he was from and the guy said, "I don't remember." It's always a party in Oakland.

8:28pm- JJ Fish- 588 14th St. (Oakland)- $6.99

Okay, this is where things started to get complicated. I'd eaten at JJ once or twice before and I liked it. I got catfish once and chicken another time. I remember both items being quite good and I loved their hush puppies. But since I was really full, I wanted to try something that wasn't gonna push me over the edge or cause what the IFOCE calls a "reversal of fortune." JJ is a soul food fish place based out of Chicago. They opened 3 or 4 stores in the East Bay about 2 years ago. In addition to the standard catfish and snapper fish offerings, they also have perch, sole, and whiting. Kelly suggested that whiting sounded light and mild and I agreed. I ordered the small portion.

While I waited for the order, a couple of "street teens" came in. They were crackheads and/or homeless. They were eating ramen they had somehow prepared inside a plastic shopping bag and they were using JJ's condiments to spice it up. They were both VERY fidgety. The counter guy never told them to leave, but he kept an eye on them and vice versa. They continued to eat their noodles and then one of them got up and ask the counter guy for some crackers. The guy said, "Crackers are for customers, man!" The kid sat down in disgust and ate some more noodles and got even more fidgety. He would look at the counter guy and then at the door and then out the window and then at the rest of the customers and then back at the counter dude. He really looked like he was about to do something. As soon as I got the whiting, we left. I took a photo of the fish on the hood of my car and then we drove away. (Once again, it was way too much food for a "small.") We parked a few blocks away and I got ready to eat. The fries were pretty good, even though they were frozen. (In this case, I know for sure they were frozen, because I saw the guy take them out of the freezer and put them in the fryer.) They were crunchy on the outside but soft within. Then I bit into the whiting. I've never had whiting before, so I don't know what it's supposed to taste like. It may be the best fish on earth under other circumstances, but the JJ whiting was the fishiest fish this side of sushi mackerel. I took a couple of bites and announced, "There's no way I'm gonna be able eat all of this!" I was only 2 bites into the endeavor and I was already on the verge of letting the fish fly from my stomach and calling it a day. And I wasn't about to go back to JJ and risk the ramen crackheads in order to get something more familiar.

Time was of the essence. I knew that very few places serving fish were still open. I had to get moving. I knew of several places that would be worth trying (Gulfport, Kensington, Vida's), but they were all closed or they would be closed by the time we got there. And I was so tense, my farts were beginning to smell like anxiety.

9:09pm- Louisiana Fish and Chips- 2817 Telegraph Ave. (Oakland, CA)- $7.75

We got here right after they closed, but the owners said we could still order if we took it to go. Like L&S, the place was run by Koreans and it was a soulfood fish place that also made burritos. It was decorated with colorful cartoon-ish fish that seemed like they'd be more at home in a children's hospital than in a restaurant. There were 2 TV's on. One was playing SportsCenter, the other was playing a Guthy-Renker infomercial. After I placed my order, the owner turned down the sound on the infomercial and turned up the sound on ESPN. How rude! What if I wanted to order that Ab-Lounger?

The owner said they were out of a few things, so I had to get catfish again- the fattiest fish of all. Not what I wanted at this point. The refrigerator case had several pieces of cake from Cassandra's Wedding Cakes, a soul food bakery in Richmond. The stuff looked delicious. They had the usual Red Velvet, but also slices of Mellow Yellow, Lemon Supreme, and Buttercream. If I didn't have serious work to do, I would have gotten a piece for sure. The fish came. I had to take it to go, but I took a peek inside the Styrofoam container. Cornmeal coating? Check. Pre-frozen fries? Check. Way too much food for a small portion? Check. I would have to eat this at home along with the final 2 selections later. More on that eating experience below.

9:50pm- Rudy’s Can’t Fail Diner- 4081 Hollis Street (Emeryville, CA)- $9.50

Yes, this place is co-owned by the bassist for Green Day. Yes, all the waiters/waitresses look like hipster douchebags while they have an all-Mexican kitchen crew like every other place around here. (Why no Mexican waiters? Why no hipster dishwashers?) Yes, I had to get a Cajun catfish sandwich with fries instead of an actual order of fish and chips. Yes, the sandwich was totally overpriced. But beggars can't be choosers in Oakland at nearly 10pm. In this case, I was very glad I had to get my food to go. At least at home, I wouldn't have to look at those dorks while I ate. That would be too much to bear in the physical state I was in that night. And I didn't need those fools judging me for unbuckling my belt and undoing the top button of my pants at the table. At home, I'd be able to wear sweatpants and fart openly and moan in agony while I ate. Take THAT, Rudy!

9:58pm- Scend’s Restaurant and Bar- 3627 San Pablo Ave (Emeryville, CA)- $5.99

Scend's is a soul food fish restaurant/bar on the border of Oakland and Emeryville. It's less than a mile from Rudy's, but the vibe is so different, it may as well be on another planet. No hipsters at Scends's. No Mexican cooks, no faux-retro decor, no edgy, "alternative" music playing. Scend's is just a lot of middle-aged black folks sitting around drinking, laughing, and eating fried fish. The bar and restaurant are all in the same room and it's pretty dark and dive-y looking, but somehow they're trying to represent themselves as an upscale kind of place. As such, the fish and chips at Scend's were pretty pricey, so I had to get a catfish sandwich with fries like at Rudy's, lest I exceeded the $10 maximum.

I didn't feel threatend in Scend's, but I felt like we had crashed a party where we weren't invited. We were too white, too young, and too sedate for this place this late at night. During the day, Scend's is likely more about the food, but at night, people are there to get their party on. Next to the ordering counter is a CD jukebox, filled with hip-hop and current R&B. There was a handmade sign on the jukebox that said, "No songs with profanity before 10pm." It said the jukebox was actually programmed to not play songs with swears in them before 10pm. How does it know which songs are filthy? Is there some kind of F-bomb timer? We left Scend's with the food just before the clock struck 10pm. They were playing Aaliyah as we exited, but I imagine a set with Too Short, Geto Boys, and Three Six Mafia was soon to follow- unless they're cool enough to know about Blowfly and Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts. I took all the food home. I had a portion of fish and chips and 2 fish sandwiches with fries left to eat before I went to bed.

I started with the order from Lousiana Fish n' Chips, hoping to eat it before it got too cold. I figured it would have cooled of sufficiently to allow me to eat it with more rapidly than when it was in its original lava-like state. My first response was- "My god, how is this the small portion?!" My second thought was, "Oh no, the fish is practically cold." I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised it WAS more than an hour since I had picked up the fish. I figured the styrofoam might keep the food warm for a while, though. Nope. Then I tasted the fish. Terrible. Not only was it cold, which does not help fried fish at all, it had this really weird undertaste to it. It had that strange flavoring you get in a lot of dishes you find on Chinese steam-tray buffets. That seasoning can work well in mongolian beef or princess prawns or whatever, but in Louisiana-style catfish it just tasted wrong. The fries were totally acceptable, frozen crinkle-cut. Normally, I eat all of my main course before I eat too many fries, but I decided that I should eat a mouthful of fries prior to each bite of the funky Asian-tasting catfish. It helped a little, but not much. Besides being incredible full, the unpleasant seasoning and rubbery texture (due to its cold temperature) made it really hard to eat the fish as quickly as I had anticipated. Not only that, the room was now almost completely noxious due to my flatulence. This smell would permeate our entire apartment until the following Monday. I imagine this fish would be somewhat better when eaten warm and when one hasn't eaten 5 portions of fish the same day, but that cryptic seasoning would be present regardless of the conditions, so I don't think I'll be eating from here again.

I didn't expect much from Rudy's sandwich. I had eaten there for brunch a while ago and I couldn't believe that people would wait in line to eat here like they do. The food was very so-so for the price, and as I mentioned, the waitstaff is just ridiculous. However, I've got to say Rudy's fish sandwich was pretty damn good, even though it was now practically room temperature. It was a big hunk of seasoned, cornbread-dusted catfish on a toasted roll with some sort of seasoned mayo. And somehow it didn't get rubbery, like the cold Louisian fish did. The fresh cut fries were also seasoned. The mayo and the fries must be what makes it "Cajun." I was eating very slowly and my nostrils were now so full of methane, my own emanations were starting to overpower the smell of the fish and fries. And the grease both IN me and ON me just made me feel dizzy. I eyed the Scend's-wich and sighed.

It was kind of a chilly night, so by now, the Scend's sandwich felt as if it had recently come out of a refrigerator. To be fair, the cold temperature wasn't doing this fish any favors, but I could tell it would've been pretty lifeless anyway. It was almost devoid of flavor and very dense and heavy. The bun was just an average hamburger bun and the fish sat on lettuce and tartar. I'm sure the sandwich would've been totally acceptable if it was hot, but it cost 3-4 times more than a Filet-o-fish, so it's probably not essential. Once again, the fries were the frozen crinkle cuts and they were kind of grainy, a result of freezer burn, I'd surmise.

It took seemingly forever to get through these 3 fish items. The wife had long since retired for the evening in an attempt to retreat from the fumes I'd been excreting for the past several hours. I was eating soooo slowly. It was a struggle to breathe, let alone swallow food. I was exhausted and I nodded off several times while I ate. I'm pretty sure I once passed out with a mouthful of the Scend-wich. The fish-eating experience was nightmarish and one I will never repeat, but I can't help but be a little thrilled that I could've possibly choked and died by aspirating a catfish sandwich. In your face, Cass Elliott!

After the hot dog session, I felt on top of the world. I went to bed feeling pretty much the same as any other night. And I would have gladly eaten another hot dog a day or two later. After the fish and fries session, I was seriously hurting as I lay down for the night. It was as if I was carrying sand bags on my back, around my waist, and inside my colon. I shuffled to the bed like I was attached to a ball and chain.

I slept very hard that night- for nearly 12 hours- except for a couple of occasions when I was awakened by own gas. I loved fish and chips, but I feel I may have permanently tainted myself for them forever. I saw a Long John Silver's commercial the other day and it made me nauseous. And when somebody said "fish n' chips" on a cooking show on PBS, I grimaced. The very name sounds like farts.

The Best
H. Salt

The Worst

JJ Fish

NEXT IEM SESSION: Inhuman Eating Machine goes to New York (special vacation edition)

Friday, May 11, 2007

IEM Session #1- See Me Consume a Frankfurter

To learn what this is all about, you really should read the IEM introduction.

Before we get started, I want to address a concern I had regarding the whole IEM concept. How do I prove to the reader that all of the eating for each session takes place on the same day? Initially, I had the idea to have my photo taken in front of each establishment holding that day’s newspaper- like in a kidnapping photo. A friend pointed out that I could hold up that same day's paper three years from now, so that wouldn’t prove anything. After that brilliant idea was so crudely debunked, I couldn’t come up with anything else too concrete for proof.

So, all I can do is place my hand on the Holy Bible and promise you all: “By the power of Greyskull, I, Andrew Levy, the Inhuman Eating Machine, solemnly affirm
on the immortal souls of Walter Hudson, Homer J. Simpson, and William Howard Taft that the food I am about to receive was all consumed within the same calendar day. So help me God.”

Eating Day: Saturday, April 21, 2007- HOT DOGS
Why hot dogs?
I had 3 reasons. Firstly, I wanted to pay tribute to one of my favorite food sites- Watch Me Eat a Hot Dog, which seems to have slowed down somewhat post-Katrina. Secondly, I wanted to go really big on the first session of Inhuman Eating Machine (IEM) and I knew I could really knock it out of the park with hot dogs. IEM by-laws state that I must eat at least 8 of the item in question. 8 hot dogs in one day is child's play. I vowed to eat 15 for my debut to show you that I was serious. Finally, I read somewhere that the Bay Area is one of the biggest hot dog eating regions in the U.S. and I wanted to see if the area's franks were of a quality I would expect in such a wiener-centric region. The quest was a little harder than I thought it would be, but I had a blast. Join me, won't you?

10:52am- Glenn's Hot Dogs- 3506 Mac Arthur Blvd (Oakland )- $2.50
Ever eaten Chinese food at a place where the entire place was staffed by non-Asians? It's never good. On the other side of the food coin, if you go to an "American-food" place that appears to have been taken over by recent Chinese immigrants, you're probably gonna be disappointed, too. The Chinese may do doughnuts better than anybody, but for diner-fare, they have a tendency to get it slightly wrong. Give 'em time, though. American culinary influences are universal and they CAN be learned. They'll be cranking out awesome double cheeseburgers years before Honky ever cooks good Hunan.

The proprietor of Glenn’s speaks broken English. He’s probably pretty new to the US, but he works that grill like he's the second coming of Mel Sharples. I couldn’t have hoped for a better place to start off my hot dog journey. Glenn’s is run by a friendly Cantonese-speaking guy and what appears to be his wife and daughter. The establishment seems to be circa 1950’s or 60’s and I imagine it has known several owners. The place has a few tables and a counter with about 6 stools. There is a 2ft. high clear plastic wall on the side of the counter closest to the employees. This is either a sneeze guard or some sort of barrier installed to make it harder for miscreants to jump over the counter and kill the employees. Judging by the “Grand Opening” sign hanging outside, the new management haven’t run Glenn's for too long, but they have started off with a bang.

I ordered the regular hot dog. By the crimp on the ends of the dog, it appeared to be some boutique/gourmet brand. I was psyched when I saw the owner throw the dog on the griddle. It’s been my experience that grilling/griddling a hot dog automatically improves its flavor by a good margin. And he toasted the bun, too- another way to increase the overall experience. The dog arrived in just a few minutes, topped with onions, mustard, and relish. Normally, I eat my dogs with mustard only, or maybe with a little kraut or onions, but for this experiment, I ate each place’s “default” hot dog. One bite of this dog and I knew Glenn (or whatever the new guy’s name is) was cooking with gas, literally and figuratively. The dog was longer than average, it had a good snap, just the right seasoning, and lots of juice in every bite. And the sesame bun tasted fresh (sometimes a toasted bun is an attempt to mask staleness). This hot dog was everything I could ask for and the price was right. I will be visiting Glenn's again when I do a session on burgers. That day can't come too soon.

11:12am- Kasper's- 2551 Mac Arthur Blvd ( Oakland )- $2.69
Like Glenn's, Kasper's appears to be from the 50's or 60's. It's part of a chain that has a handful of East Bay locations. Kasper's is a separate chain from Casper's, a slightly larger (and significantly inferior) East Bay hot dog chain. It's also separate from "The Original Kaspers" at the junction of Telegraph and Shattuck, which is currently (permanently?) closed. I once asked the guy at "Original Kaspers" what the deal was with all of the similarily-named hot dog places in the East Bay and he gave me the low-down. I don't remember all the details, but the gist of it was there was a guy named Kasper who ran a hot dog stand in Oakland. Both of his sons wanted to take over the place. They never came to an agreement, so they each started their own hot dog place- Kasper's and Casper's. The old dude's place became known as "The Original Kasper's."

I don't know how the MacArthur Kasper's stays in business, unless they get incredibly busy on weekdays. When I stop by, there's never more than a handful of people in there and nobody seems to be eating much. They're all just talking like old friends. There's almost always a cop in there and he probably gets his food for free. (By the way, what does the beige Oakland P.D. uniform mean?) Everyone seems to know each other and they just hang out. It's the same kind of clientele I used to see at the incomparable Ann's Cafe before it closed in 2000. The counter-staff seem to know all of the customers and they sit around talking a lot, too. There's a jukebox with 45's like "The Gambler", "The Joker", and "Dancing in the Moonlight", but they were playing a mix tape that day. The tape had "She's a Goodhearted Woman" (live version) on it, Charlie Pride's "Kiss an Angel Good Morning", and "Rock Around the Clock" among other country and 50's classics. The 70-ish counter-lady seemed to know every lyric and she danced around and sang as she went about her hot dog duties.

The Kasper's Dog is obviously a take on the Chicago-style hot dog. The dog is steamed in a massive steamer and it's topped with onions, relish, mustard, and tomatoes. The bun is really fresh, but the highly steamed dog, kind of shrivels up the bun. For some reason, it actually tastes good that way. The dog has a lot of old school hot dog flavor and it snaps properly. Like a moron, I forgot to take a photo of the first dog I ordered, so I had to order another one. That was ALL I needed on this day- to eat an extra hot dog.

11:48am-Weinerschnitzel-1529 Park St. (Alameda,CA)- $1.79
This chain used to be called Der Weinerschnitzel. Though they're still the largest hot dog chain in the US, it's not that easy to find their stores without really looking for one. They used to have a ton of franchises all over the West and Southwest. Until very recently, it had been easily 25 years since I had eaten at this place, so I can’t remember if they also used to serve good hot dogs. Regardless, they don’t serve good hot dogs now.

It’s possible that dropping the “Der” from the chain’s name doomed them to financial ruin. Maybe they dumped the Deutsche article, as not to offend Jewish hot dog lovers. As a hot dog -loving Semite, I find their half-assed franks as offensive as any connection I could ever infer between this hot dog stand and the Third Reich.

The dog I ordered was only marginally better than the ones they sell for $1 each at Wednesday Oakland A’s home games. Both dogs are the kind you would never want to eat if you had to pay full price. Not only did I pay full price for the dog at Weinerschnitzel, but I “upgraded” by paying 80 cents extra to get an all-beef frank. If this was their premium dog, I can’t even imagine what their regular dog is like. The dog was skimpy and had amost zero flavor and not much snap. The bun wasn’t quite stale, but it was crumbly like it had been drying in the sun. If this dog cost 50 cents, I could see eating it occasionally if I was to get it with cheese or chili. But in its natural state, the dog is just not worth your time.

The best thing about Weinerschnitzel is the A-frame architecture. The second best thing is their napkin, which is printed with the slogan, “Pushing the boundaries of taste.” Don’t they understand that some folks could take that slogan the wrong way? They obviously have the same dumbkopfs working on Der Marketing as Das Hot Dog.

12:06pm- Pampered Pup 1401 Park St. (Alameda,CA)- $2.75
Glenn’s showed me that Chinese guys can take over an old time hot dog stand and not have the quality suffer. I’m not sure if this place was any good before the Chinese owner took over, but it’s only so-so now.

Like Kasper’s and many other places I would eat on this day, Pampered Pup is trying to replicate the Chicago-style dog. They like to put big slices of onion and tomato on top of the dog. Unfortunately, the dog wasn’t very flavorful and it tasted like it had been steamed too long, which is strange, considering the place had only been open an hour when I arrived. The bun was not quite stale, but it wasn't fresh, either. The whole thing wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t anything I’d get again if I had my druthers. It was like filet mignon next to Weinerschnitzel, though.

If you’re in Alameda and you MUST HAVE A HOT DOG, go here. Pampered Pup will fulfill your need for a hot dog. You may be left semi-satisfied, like when you try to take a dump and you only fart. But you could do much worse- like going to Weinerschnitzel.

12:50pm- Village Dog- 6112 LaSalle Ave-Montclair Plaza (Oakland, CA) $4.00
Montclair is a very rich, very white enclave on the top of a hill overlooking a very poor, very black city. Although it is technically part of Oakland, Montclair’s narrow streets, which wind through massive redwood trees, bring to mind Marin county. There are no sideshows up here. And there is nowhere to get your teeth fitted for a gold grill in Montclair Plaza. But there is a UPS store, a shoe repair, a video rental, a SCORE tutoring center, and Village Dog.

Apparently, this space used to be a Top Dog, but they are no longer affiliated. Like Top Dog, Village Dog specializes in fancy gourmet sausages. There were lots of white people with tan pants and down vests waiting in line for a variety of encased meat products. All of the items are cooked on a grill, which was very promising. The place had a condiment bar with onions, jalapenos, kraut, and like 4 kinds of mustard. That’s even better than what they have at Top Dog. And they had a TV on with the NBA playoffs. This place was looking very good so far.

I ordered the standard beef dog. It arrived well-grilled with a little char on it. The bun was toasted on the grill. The dog had a good snap, and it was pretty tasty, but it wasn’t nearly as flavorful as I would have expected at a gourmet place like this. It was just okay. And the bun wasn’t just toasted. It was DRY. I’m guessing the bread wasn’t quite fresh prior to toasting. The spicy mustard was a nice touch, though. Would I eat here again? Are you paying? Because if you’re not, forget it.

$4 for a hot dog? Who do they think they are? If they’re gonna charge that much for a HOT DOG, they should have some pride in their work and kick my ass with that frank. This dog would have been totally serviceable down in “the Flats” at Flats prices, but up in the Hills and for $4, it just did not live up to its thoroughbred pedigree. How the hell did all these crackers get so rich when they spend $4 for a dog like this?

1:44pm- Hot Dog Palace- 1990 Grant (Concord, CA) $3.45
I had high hopes for this place. It was recommended by Mitch “The Crocketeer” Cardwell who really seems to know his grub. I reckon this place holds some sort of nostalgic appeal for him, because it looks like it’s as old as the town of Concord itself. When I arrived, my heart sank. There was a huge banner outside proclaiming themselves the “Home of the world’s greatest hot dog.” Everybody knows that you don’t need to put that kind of claim on a banner if you really are the best. John Holmes didn’t go around wearing a Miss America sash telling everybody he had a 13 ½" (some say more like 14") schlong. Like a really good hot dog joint, he knew to let his meat do the talking.

This place had kind of a forced old-timey ambience, not unlike the late, lamented Farrell’s Ice Cream chain- kitschy and fun. All the signs looked old. They may even be the original signs, but I think the place has had a recent management change, because it seemed to be run by a Korean family. I took this as a good sign. Unlike recent Chinese immigrants, for some reason, recent Korean immigrants seem to know their way around American-style food. I think the U.S. presence in post-war Korea may have led them to an understanding of greasy spoon cuisine. And I love it when they say “frenchee fry”. I ordered the beef dog, which was once again proclaimed as “Chicago Style”. They even had Vienna Beef signs on the wall.

Let me just say that I like the Chicago dog. It’s a decent sandwich. But it’s overkill. If you start off with a really good hot dog, there is absolutely no reason to cover it up with all of that stuff. For all I know, the dog at Hot Dog Palace may have been an actual Vienna Beef dog, but it was just average, even though it was easily 1/4 lb. The item was similar in some ways to the Kasper’s dog in the way the bun kind of shriveled up when the steamed dog hit it. That’s a nice touch. But alas, the dog itself was kind of bland. It snapped properly, but it was still a pale imitation of the superior Kasper's dog. The pickle wedge was really good, though. If I lived in Concord, I might eat here regularly and try some of the other menu items if there wasn’t a Costco and Sam’s Club in town. Atmosphere, pickles, banners, and endearing mispronunciations will only take you so far in this life, my friends. Get a good hot dog together and we’ll talk.

2:09pm- Sam's Club- 1225 Concord Ave. (Concord, CA) $1.50 with a Coke
There is a myth that kosher beef is better than non-Kosher meat. It may be healthier, but it doesn't generally taste better. Kosher meat preparation requires heavy salting and soaking, which can leave beef tasting dry and leathery. And since the hind quarters of the beef are verboten, many of the best cuts of meat are unavailable in kosher form. There is one place where kosher beef shines- the world of hot dogs. The kosher dog is not only devoid of the usual lips, hooves, and anuses found in the standard hot dog. It is also all beef, made without fillers, and in most cases, seasoned way better than any other dog.

For some reason, Sam's Club and Costco both sell kosher franks in their snack bars. Sam's has Best Kosher dogs. For $1.50, you get a 1/4 lb. all beef dog on a sesame bun with a bottomless soda. This is a great deal, even for a Weinerschnitzel-quality dog, but Sam's actually serves a great hot dog. The dog is juicy and full of flavor, though in this case, I think it may have been steamed a little too long, because it didn't snap like other Best Kosher dogs I've had at Sam's. The other problem this day was the bun. It was a little too chewy and gummy as if it hadn't been baked long enough. But for $1.50, how can you complain? A Best Kosher dog is better on its worst day the 90% of other dogs on their best day.

Sam's Club is part of the Wal-Mart empire, so some folks may feel guilty supporting these evil overlords. I'm not always the most socially responsible consumer, but I feel good about eating at the Sam's Club snack bar for 2 reasons:

  1. Unlike Costco, you do not need to be a member (about $50/year) to eat in Sam's Club snack bar.
  2. The snack bar at Sam's Club is practically a loss leader. They are making little or no profit on the dogs there. The snack bar is bait to lure you into the store to buy something with a much more significant mark-up. They won't make that money from me, though. I will not buy a palate of paper towels there, because I am not a member. When I buy hot dogs at the snack bar without buying anything inside, I am actually hurting Wal-Mart's designs on crushing the workers of the world. With every delicious bite I become more and more like Cesar Chavez.

3:10pm Sam's Doghouse- 2432 San Pablo Ave. (Pinole, CA)- $2.64
Sam’s Doghouse (no relation to Sam’s Club) is in a nondescript strip mall in “downtown” Pinole. Living in the “cool” Bay Area, I often forget that there are a lot of small towns around here like Pinole that are indistinguishable from any burg in my former home, Iowa. Sam’s Doghouse has fat counter girls with perms who look like the girls I'd see working the counter at Taco John's in Marshalltown, Iowa. They were singing along with a “rock of the 90’s” radio station. The brunette with the glasses seemed to especially love “Time Bomb” by Rancid. I had no idea kids knew those songs these days. And who knew they still played Rancid on the radio?

The place seemed to be going for a 50’s theme at one point, but there was so little effort put into the whole concept, I could barely detect it. They had a few stock portraits of ’57 Chevy’s, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, etc., strewn around in a haphazard manner. And they had some yellowed newspaper clippings about a classic car show from the 80's. They also had an autographed 8x10 glossy of Robert Boatright. I’ve never heard of this guy. He looked kind of like an Ernest and Julio Gallo-period Orson Welles. I figured he was a 50’s actor or crooner who had stopped through Pinole on his way to play the state fair or something. I Googled the guy, but I couldn’t find anybody remotely famous with that name. Who is he and why does Sam’s Doghouse want a photo of him on the wall? Sure, he wrote, “To Sam’s Doghouse. Thanks for the best hot dog I ever had.” But so what? If I was to write that (false) statement on a photo of myself, would they frame it and put it on the wall?

By now, I was getting pretty full. One might think that my taste buds were dulled at this point. Actually, the opposite was true. Normally, I will eat quickly in an attempt to satiate my hunger as quickly as possible and I don’t always stop to savor my food the way I should. But in this state, where I felt like my gullet was going to detonate, I became acutely aware of every single bite.

Once again, this place served Chicago dogs. It was another pale imitation of Kasper’s; it had the shrivel-y bun, but a rather run-of-the-mill dog. It made zero impact on my palate. If I still lived in Iowa and this was the only hot dog joint for 60 miles, I might eat there regularly. Otherwise, I can’t think of any reason to eat a regular dog at the Doghouse. They seem to specialize in chili-cheese dogs, so maybe one of those would make this place worth my while. But my trip was about regular dogs. There would be no chili cheese for me on this day, friends. My lot was to slowly and sadly eat a mediocre dog while my distended belly stretched in agony. My only solace was the winsome gaze of Robert Boatright above my table.

3:49pm- Pup Hut- 12505 San Pablo Ave. (Richmond, CA) $2.75
At this point, I was feeling a good deal of pain. I never realized this mission would be as hard as it was. After all, I once polished off 13 dogs at an A’s game before the bottom of the fifth inning. And I've eaten 8 dogs in 5 minutes on a few occasions. I forgot that those were measly little dogs like you get at the grocery store, though. All day, I’d been eating big restaurant dogs, many purporting to be ¼ lb., and I was getting pretty sick of the whole Chicago dog gimmick that the bulk of Bay Area doggeries have succumbed to.

Pup Hut, another Mitch Cardwell recommendation, is on San Pablo Ave. in a pretty run-down part of Richmond. From the looks of the building, it’s been there since at least the 60’s. It seems to be a hangout for the local youth and I imagine it’s been that way since it opened. I seriously doubt if many of the teen clientele had gold teeth in 1963, though. The kids were goofing with the cook while they sat at the counter. At one point, the cook pulled a can of mace and appeared as if he was going to spray the kids. Luckily, he was just joking around with them. If things started to get ugly at the Pup Hut, I was in no condition to run.

I ordered the regular dog and was not at all happy to see it was another Chicago-esque offering. I could barely get the thing in my mouth; the pain in my gut was strong. But strangely, this dog was great. Even with a bellyache and the superfluous Chicago toppings, I could tell this was a superior dog. The casing snapped right and it had great seasonings. And the bun was very fresh. I wished I wasn’t so full, because I would’ve ordered several of these, but it took me at least 20 minutes to finish the one dog I had ordered. Although I thought I might pass out when I forced down the last bite of the dog, it tasted just as good as one of the dogs from earlier that day. So far, only Glenn’s and Kasper’s were in the same league as the Pup Hut dog for overall dog quality. The place also had milkshakes and grilled burgers. They both looked great, but I could barely move at this point let alone eat either of those things. I waddled out to the parking lot. One more dog and I was going to allow myself to go home and regroup for that evening's repast.

5:30pm- Costco- 4801 Central Ave. (Richmond, CA)- $1.50 w/Coke
When I arrived at Costco, I almost considered not going inside. I had no interest in eating a hot dog or anything else ever again. My stomach felt like I had swallowed a cannonball. But my "commitment to the bit” was too strong. I decided to hang out in the car for a few minutes and steel myself for the inevitable. After a very brief nap, I entered the store. Luckily, I had some grocery shopping to do, which enabled me to burn up another half hour. Walking around the massive warehouse store was helping to redistribute the food-baby in my man-womb. And then it happened. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, I began feeling that familiar twitching down in my lower intestines. Before I knew it, I was in the Costco bathroom making a boom-boom. To say I was no longer full after that would be a lie, but dropping a deuce released just enough pressure to allow me to go eat a Costco dog.

While I waited in the long-ish line at the snack bar, I snapped the photo of the sign you see below. About a minute later, a chubby Costco employee came up to me and said:
“Sir, I noticed that you just took a picture of our sign.”
“Yes, I did.” I said.
“Can I ask you why you took a picture of our sign?” He said.
“I’m doing a blog about hot dogs.” I said.
“Oh really?” He said, sounding sort of excited.The guy’s manager was right behind him. She looked very serious. The guy whispered something to her, but she shook her head. The guy said, “Sorry sir. We don’t allow photos in Costco.”

I was in no mood to argue. If I was to raise my voice in anger I might spew nitrate-laced vomit all over Costco. “I won’t take any more photos.” I said.
“Also, I have to advise you that if you post that photo you may be held liable.” He said.

In retrospect, I should have told him, "And you, sir, will be held liable for serving delicious frankfurters!" I expected them to grab my camera and smash it to the ground as if I had photographed a bum in Tiananmen Square or Fidel Castro masturbating behind a Havana nursery school. “Okay, I won’t post the photo.” I lied. They walked away slowly.

It was my turn in line. I ordered the hot dog deal- a Sinai 48 ¼ lb. kosher dog on a sesame bun with a self-service soda for $1.50 plus tax. Even though I was still very full and had just been persecuted by the Costco Gestapo, that dog was just plain awesome. There were no Chicago-isms to screw up the perfection of the dog. Tomato and sport peppers are not needed there. That tube steak snapped better than George Michael during the intro to “Father Figure.” Although I didn’t get the Polish sausage, the Sinai 48 hot dog is way more sausage-like than any other dog out there. It packs so much flavor and juice that I almost forgot that I felt like puking. I wasn’t eating with my usually vigor, but I ate that dog twice as fast as the Pup Hut dog, which was no slouch itself. Maybe going BM allowed me to pick up the pace a little. Perhaps I just felt unwelcome in the store and I ate faster so I could leave the watchful eyes of the oppressor. I like to think it was the superior quality of that kosher dog that allowed me to finish it in a respectable amount of time; savoring it as if it was my last meal before the secret police executed me by firing squad and forced my family to pay for the bullet.

9:09pm- Smokehouse- 3115 Telegraph Ave. (Berkeley, CA)- $3.20
After resting at home for a while, I was ready to start anew. The pain had vanished and my hunger was restored. I grabbed the wife and we embarked on the final chapter of the first session of Inhuman Eating Machine. We had intended to start at either the Ikea snack bar or at the Top Dog inside the Long's Drugs at 51st and Broadway, but both of those places were closed, so we headed to the Oakland/Berkeley border.

The Smokehouse is open late. I had a burger there a long time ago, but I can't remember anything about it. I'll re-visit when I do the burger session. It was a chilly, rainy night, so eating there was rather uncomfortable. There's a roof over the eating area's wooden picnic tables, but for all intents and purposes, you're eating outside. The clientele were primarily patrons from the White Horse across the street. The White Horse is the East Bay's oldest gay bar. The constant stream of femmes, butches, bears, stone butches, and lady-boys provided a nice floor-show while we waited for our food.

The Smokehouse grills their dog and they toast the bun on the grill. They could've really been a contender. But then they committed the cardinal sin of putting ketchup on the dog! Subtract 12 charisma points immediately! This was the only place I ate that had ketchup as a default condiment. I knew we were in for trouble. Next, I discovered that the dog was flaccid and flavorless. The bun had more flavor than the hot dog, for chrissake! It should've been great. Except for the ketchup, they did all the right things, preparation-wise. The dog would've made a great model for a photo in a magazine ad. It was positively beautiful in its presentation. But they began with a sub-Oscar Mayer dog, so they were doomed from the start. They clearly tried to polish a turd here. I noticed that none of the flamboyant folks from across the street ordered a hot dog. They all got hamburgers. The gays must know something. Could they be the canary in the coalmine of hot dog quality? Regardless, I am now a strong suppporter of the Gay/Lesbian/Transgender community's right to steer me away from cruddy weiners.

9:38pm- Oscar’s- 1890 Shattuck Ave. (Berkeley, CA) - $2.95
Oscar’s is apparently a Berkeley institution. It’s been around since the early 60’s, I'd reckon. Due to its proximity to UC Berkeley, a lot of students eat here. I can’t help wondering if they ever had their windows smashed during looting following the many riots during the Free Speech Movement, Black Panther rallies, or anti-‘Nam protests. Do you suppose tear gas tastes good on fries? And how did Huey Newton like his burgers cooked?

In addition to students/professors, there’s almost always a crazy person or a derelict in Oscar’s. Before we entered, I snapped a photo of the building. When we got inside, a shifty dude shouted, “You better not have taken my picture!” He was either A- Afraid the photo would make the voices angry or B- On the lam. He was muttering to himself, so I’m going with option A.

I’ve eaten Oscar’s burgers a few times and I remember liking them, but this was my first time with their hot dog. Like Smokehouse, the dog and bun were nicely grilled, but the dog was the skimpiest entry since Weinerschnitzel and they did the Chicago thing again! It had decent snap and passable flavor, but it was a very middle of the road offering overall. It was considerably better than the Smokehouse, though. If the dog was a little larger, I might order it as a side order with a burger on occasion, but it’s definitely not a necessary frankfurter. I like their big grill and the kooky atmosphere, though, so I’ll probably be back again for the burger session.

10:12pm- Albany Bowl- 540 San Pablo Ave. (Albany, CA) - $3.75 w/fries
We tried going to Saul’s in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, but they had just closed. It’s for the best. We looked through their window and their menu said a dog there was $6! Unless the hot dog is the size of a Buick, I’m no longer interested.

The Albany Bowl is a great bowling alley. It’s one of the few alleys around that have any character. It was opened in 1949 and while there have been some concessions to the modern world (rock n’ bowl, electronic scoreboards, etc.) it still retains its old-time bowling alley charm. Most bowling alleys have been sterilized and modernized. Perhaps they are more conducive to serious bowling that way, but they lose their souls. The snack bar/cafe at the Albany has a huge menu. In addition to the usual burgers/nachos/hot dogs, they also serve breakfast. Plus, they have a substantial Thai menu and a couple of Filipino items. (I think the owners/managers are Thai.) I may come back to sample some of these other items, but I will stay as far away from their hot dog as humanly possible.

Calling the Albany Bowl hot dog the worst hot dog I’ve ever eaten would be a compliment. I am not a picky eater. After all of my grousing about the Weinerschnitzel dog, I’d still gladly eat several of those dogs if they were free (or dirt cheap.) It’s still a hot dog, after all. But I would NOT eat a free Albany Bowl hot dog. In fact, I will never eat another one unless I am paid handsomely. If I survived a plane crash and the only food available was Albany Bowl hot dogs and the flesh of the dead passengers, the hot dogs would go undisturbed.

To begin with, the dog there was the wrong color. I’m colorblind, but even I could tell something was amiss with this dog. It was too dark, but not due to cooking. When I bit into the sandwich, I was surprised that the bun offered more resistance than the dog. There appeared to be a casing, but my teeth begged to differ. It was at once bitter and liver-like. And it smelled like an overfilled garbage can. It was as if someone had fashioned a hot dog-shaped cylinder of turd and placed it on a bun with some onions. Unfortunately, I was so flabbergasted by the dog’s nastiness that I forgot to take a photo.

I did NOT want to finish this thing, but I couldn’t wuss out, especially not on my first eating session. Luckily, the dog came with crinkle fries. They were obviously previously frozen, but they were cooked just right. After every bite of the dog, I took some fries to get that liver-turd taste out of my mouth. I remembered that when we visited Thailand, we saw hot dogs in the local 7-11 that didn’t look quite right. It’s possible that the Albany Bowl hot dogs came from Thailand, because there is no hot dog in America that tastes like these. Thank God. I really liked the atmosphere at the Albany Bowl Café and the service was quick and friendly. I will probably go back to try their Thai food, breakfast, or maybe a burger. But if I even SEE one of those hot dogs, I’m leaving.

10:35pm- Nation's 1/4 Lb. Giant Burger- 6066 Central Ave (El Cerrito, CA) $2.35
I could not wait to eat here. I had to get the memory of the bowling alley dog out of my head. Nation's has a really good hamburger. I always enjoy eating there, even when I have to wait for 20 minutes for a "fast food" burger, which is most of the time. I figured the dog would live up to the burger. While I was ordering the dog, I noticed they were playing the Style Council's "My Ever Changing Moods" over the restaurant's sound system. Classy. No other burger joint plays Paul Weller. Granted, it wasn't "In the City", but it sure beat the muzak or smooth jazz they usually play in restaurants. The counterman, David, had a great baritone voice. When this burger gig goes south for him, he should consider a job doing voice overs on Mexican radio. "Esta Noche en Oakland! Los Tigres del Nooooorrrrrteeee!"

When the dog arrived, I about crapped myself. This was easily the best looking dog of the day. It was served sans-condiments, but it was grilled and split down the middle to allow the insides to get a little grilled, too. And get this- they put the dog on a grilled buttered bun! Yes! But then I took a bite. Where was the flavor? They put forth all of that effort for this? Why not just throw a salad on it and call it a Chicago dog like most everybody else? It baffled me they would allow such a lackluster dog to go out in public naked like that. This dog was the biggest let down of the day. Even moreso than Smokehouse. Jesus, Nation's! I know you only charge $2.35, but come on, spend a little more on the actual dog! If Nation's treated a top-quality dog the way they did the throwaway they serve now, they would be the undisputed kings of the wiener. Their burgers are really good. They have great pies. Their breakfasts are excellent. Why would they put forth such a meager effort with their dog? Why??!!! I wanted to scream or cry. I didn't want to live anymore. It just didn't make sense.

I felt cheated. It was like getting the the prettiest girl at school to sleep with you, but when she pulls down her pantaloons, she's secretly a dude.

11:23pm- Top Dog- 2534 Durant Ave. (Berkeley, CA)- $2.75
Top Dog is run by kooks. There are bizarre political ramblings all over the walls in a literary style that recalls the Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap label. I couldn't really tell if the owner is a leftist or a reactionary, but he's a certifiable madman if any of this stuff makes sense to him. I felt as if I should do my civic duty and report him to the authorities- after I finished my hot dog.

Despite its moniker, Top Dog is more of a sausage place than a hot dog place. There's only one hot dog on the menu and about a dozen sausages, including kielbasa, bratwurst, knackwurst, etc.
Like Nation's, the dog here is grilled and the bun is toasted and served sans-condiments. You can dress it up with their assortment of mustard, relish, onion, etc., but unlike Nation's, this dog is full of flavor. Every bite is like chewing a piece of Freshen-Up gum filled with delectable hot dog juice. It literally exploded in my mouth. This was the perfect dog to end the day. It was the Omega to Glenn's Alpha. And it was so good that I ended the quest still loving hot dogs. I figured I'd be sick of hot dogs both literally and figuratively at the end, but Top Dog just left me wanting more. And if I wasn't so tired, I could've kept eating there for a few more hours, because the Top Dog on Durant is open until 3am on Friday and Saturday.

Whatever the Top Dog owner stands for, I want to follow him and will give my life, if necessary, for the hot dog revolution.

Top Dog

Albany Bowl

Coming Soon: IEM#2: Fish and Chips

INTRODUCTION- A Window to Obesity- Welcome to Inhuman Eating Machine

Whenever friends meet my Uncle Charles, the first thing he tells them about me is the time he took me to McDonald’s when I visited him and my aunt in Canarsie when I was nine.

He says: “I asked Andy what he wanted to eat and he says, ‘I want 2 Quarter Pounders with Cheese, 2 Filet-O-Fish, a large fries, a large coke, an apple pie, and a vanilla milkshake.’ At first, I told him he couldn’t order all that food, because I thought he was pulling my leg. It wasn’t about the money, you understand. No nine year old eats that much. But he told me he was serious, so I ordered the food for him. And he ate it all! I’ve never seen something so incredible.”

That is my legacy. I am the Inhuman Eating Machine.

“Emotional eaters” stuff themselves because they are: stressed, depressed, angry, lonely, bored, frustrated, or anxious. I am not an Emotional Eater. I do not overeat because of my emotions. I overeat because I am constantly hungry and I have the urge to eat almost every waking moment. It’s been purported that some species of sharks and some breeds of dogs will literally eat themselves to death if they have a readily-available food supply. I think I may be genetically-related to the Great White or the Labrador Retriever. I feel like I could eat until my stomach exploded, like in Alien, except instead of a monster, I would spew forth an 18” pepperoni pizza.

My eating has been an “issue” since my early 20’s. Prior to that time, I could eat as much as I desired without gaining an ounce. In the summer of my twenty-second year, I wore baggy elastic-waist shorts the entire season. When the leaves began to change, I woke one morning to put on a pair of pants. They didn’t fit. I could not zip them. It was as if the “Fat Fairy” had visited me in my sleep. I now had a serious paunch and a double-chin. I ignored these minor inconveniences until I was almost 29. At that point, I weighed nearly 220 lbs. This may not sound like much by the standards of the 21st century American, but as a small-framed six-footer, I assure you it was not a good thing for me. My friend described me as resembling “a beanbag chair on a wire coat hanger.” It was not a pretty sight at all. I began jogging and was able to lose nearly 50 lbs. in just 4 months. A few years later, I had gained it all back. Then I lost some weight. Then I gained some back. Then I lost some weight. Then I gained some back. Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Recently, I began a ridiculous diet that consists of little more than vegetables and fruit. I’ve been able to lose more than 20 lbs. in 3 months with this diet. The reason it works is because it allows me to literally eat as much of these foodstuffs as I like. I eat at least 5 lbs. of roughage each weekday, usually more. As I write this, I am chomping on a pillow-sized bag of carrots, celery, and cucumber. Prior to that, I ate an entire jicama and a ½ lb bag of snap peas. By accommodating my need to gorge myself, the diet is actually working, as the roughage is so low in calories. However, I miss REAL food all week long. To fulfill my urges for the foods I love, I often allow myself to splurge on the weekend. I recently decided that it was time that I use my gluttony to help my fellow man. The Inhuman Eating Machine (IEM) blog is my gift to humanity. Use it wisely, my friends.

  • Once or twice per month, I will select a food item I love. I will find several places in the Bay Area where that item is available and I will proceed to eat as much of it as I can. I will go from place to place, sampling the item in question, writing about the item to let the reader know whether each place is worth a visit. I will avoid large chain restaurants, but I may visit local and regional chains.
  • Here’s the kicker…I will do all of the eating for each item within a single 24 hour period. I will visit AT LEAST EIGHT establishments per "session," which means I will eat AT LEAST EIGHT of each item per session. The sessions will generally be conducted in the East Bay with semi-regular jaunts to San Francisco, but whenever I travel I intend to conduct sessions in the area I am visiting.
  • Oh yeah. In addition to being a compulsive eater, I am also a stickler for value. I’m not gonna pay a lot for that muffler and I’m not gonna pay a lot for that burrito. I don’t mind occasionally spending a lot of money on a fancy meal, but if I do, I want to know why the food costs so much. If I pay a lot to go out to eat, there better be a hell of a lot of food and it better be incredibly delicious. I’ve had hundreds of positively delectable meals that cost $10 per person (or less.) By logic, if I spend $50 on a meal, it should be 5 times better than the $10 meal. Right? That is hardly ever the case. Because of my value-centric ways, I will restrict the IEM sessions to a maximum cost of $10 per establishment.
I hope you’ll join me for each IEM session. It should be a wild ride. You can live vicariously through my exploits or you can embark on a session of your own. I would like to go down in history as "The Johnny Appleseed of Explorational Binge-Eating." If you have any food items to suggest for a future session, please let me know. Also, I may eventually take on a “sidekick” for each session, so if you’re interested in joining me, apply within. I may eventually begin writing about the music I listen to on the way to each establishment, but my car is without a stereo as of mid-2006. If I ever replace it, you'll learn what tunes make a great soundtrack to overeating. May God have mercy on my soul.

BIG thanks to 7 Inch Slam for publishing an amazing food/music blog and for inspiring me to finally get IEM underway.