Tuesday, April 26, 2011

IEM Session #16.5

Inhuman Eating Machine official rules and guidelines

(Continued from 16.4)

Eating Day: March 19, 2011, of course

SMART ALEC'S INTELLIGENT FOOD- 2355 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, 1:55pm- Superior Chef Salad - $6.95

Photos by Tigerlily

This was the salad stop I was dreading. If anything was going to break me on this session, it would be the salad here. Their entry is almost identical to the salad just up the street at Cafe Intermezzo, but Smart Alec's offers more dressing choices, more protein add-in options, and wheat berries as a default salad topping. Smart Alec's also offers some kind of freebie to students that bring in a good report card. Alec's is not a chain, as far as I can tell, but it somehow has a very chain-y feel to it. This is probably due to the pro-looking wall menu and their emphasis on their air-cooked fries, which seem like the domain of an enterprising multinational bent on capturing students seeking healthy dining options. Unlike Intermezzo, which has a very Berkeley-looking staff that undoubtedly smells of cumin, the counter girls at Smart Alec's always look they could have been extras in an Avril Lavigne video. While the hippies at Intermezzo actually make the salads, Smart Alec's food is prepared by Spanish-speakers in the back (like at almost every other restaurant in the Bay Area.) It is strange that two establishments that truck in identical food offerings (sandwiches and massive salads) can have such completely different "vibes," even though they are only two blocks apart.

Other than wheat berries, the Smart Alec's Superior Chef salad contains romaine, corn niblets, tomato slices, carrot coins, edamame, alfalfa sprouts (aka "the splooge of the plant kingdom"), an entire hardboiled egg, half an avocado, garbanzo beans, and croutons. Plus, you get your choice of protein from a list that includes grilled chicken, roast turkey, sliced turkey, hummus, a veggie burger, baked tofu, and a hamburger patty. I opted for the burger, as it seemed charred beef might counteract the roughage's imminent digestive "corollaries." The patty was easily a quarter pounder. Although it was overcooked for my tastes, it was relentlessly juicy and flavorful. I considered it a great addition.

It is hard to tell from the photo, but the salad here is absolutely behemoth. The thing weighs well over 2lbs, possibly 3lbs. Most sane people will make three or more meals out of this concoction. In the Mountain or Central time zone, where cole slaw is considered a health food, the Superior Chef would be enough salad to feed an entire family reunion at a rented picnic area in a city park. While the ingredients of Alec's salad are not up to the organic, seasonal, locally-grown, heirloom pedigree of some of the salads I ate earlier in the day, there is no denying that the Superior Chef is a great buy. Compared to a salad you'd receive at a steak house in the Midwest, it is absolutely a masterwork of modern greenery construction. The multitude of textures belies the fact that you are "just eating a salad." It is beyond comprehension that this salad is thrice the size of some I ate on this session, while ringing up as the least expensive offering of the journey. I don't care if the ingredients on the Tomate salad were grown in a monastery in the San Joaquin Valley and hand-delivered to the restaurant's door by the monks. There is no justification for their salad to cost $2.55 more than the Smart Alec's offering.

A salad of such proportions is a wonderful gift in most applications, but it was a tribulation during this session. I correctly assumed that finishing this salad would result in the skin surrounding my abdomen nearing laceration. I am sure my midriff has stretch marks with this salad's name on it. What I did not bargain for was the intense jaw pain I experienced eating this beast. All the chewing had left my entire face throbbing, as if I had been suckerpunched. Unlike certain session meals, it would have been ill-advised to try and swallow the salad with only a perfunctory chew. I had to thoroughly chomp every bite, lest I become a Heimlich Maneuver candidate. It took me at least an hour to finish this vegetable leviathan. Smart Alec's would be as far as I could eat for a while.

I was beginning to feel occasional violently effervescent episodes below my belt. Since Smart Alec's boasts one of the only restrooms on Telegraph Ave. accessible to customers, I decided to avail myself of their facilities, even though the urge to discharge had not yet reached DefCon 5. Despite the sign on the bathroom wall admonishing, "Do not use more toilet paper than you need. Toilet has a tendency to overflow," the bowl was filled with a massive mound of TP and excreta. I suspected the assemblage was going nowhere without considerable attention I was unwilling to devote in my condition. Regardless, I jostled the wad a little with the plunger and then flushed, hoping the commode could manage the massive volume of filth. Instead, the accumulation just rose in the toilet, resting millimeters from the rim. Fearing the worst, I fled the lavatory.

This failed attempt at plumbing took quite a few minutes. My fecal necessity was now becoming crucial. First, I bandied the idea of going to Lily's place a few blocks away to sully her bathroom. This notion was dashed, however, because Chris had already lit back there to perform the very same function! Lily suggested we go to Barrows Hall at UC where KALX is located. The building is only a few blocks away from Smart Alec's, but I had tremendous difficulty completing this walk with my contents intact. I had to stop every few steps to clench. This trek was as agonizing as when Christ was led on foot to Golgotha dragging his own cross. This whole affair showed me, though, that my sphincter control seems to have increased at my advance age. In the past, I wouldn't have made it across Bancroft without a leg full of excrement, yet I reached the campus restroom with my boxer briefs relatively unscathed.

I flung myself upon the throne and set to work immediately. The job, a conglomeration of pretzel logs marinating in original-flavor Gatorade, was finished almost instantly. I sat there panting from my ordeal. Hunched over, I noticed that there were thousands of ants walking on and around the wall inches from my left foot. Normally, I would have leapt from the stool in terror and burst from the stall without regard for wiping or pants-fastening. In my condition, though, I could do little but watch the ants go about their business and drift closer into a rectally-induced coma.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

IEM Session #16.4

Inhuman Eating Machine official rules and guidelines

(Continued from 16.3)

Eating Day: March 19, 2011, what else?

MAOZ VEGETARIAN- 2395 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, 1:15pm- Salad Box w/Ice Tea- $8.00

Photo by Tigerlily
Three salads down. Nothing. Combined, the first trio of salads weighed at least 2 lbs., I'd reckon, but I may as well have eaten three pretzels. They just had not registered yet. I knew I had some serious contenders to come, but this voyage seemed even easier than I could have imagined.

I had wanted to try Maoz for a while since I spotted the joint while walking from Amoeba to Rasputin's in the midst of a dollar record sojourn. Yes, Maoz is a chain. They're an international chain, even, with stores in both the U.S. and Europe. In most cases, a chain this big would have fallen outside of the scope of the IEM by-laws, but the next closest Maoz to the one in Berkeley is roughly 3,000 miles away. I decided I would allow it in the session.

Maoz has kind of a weird system. If I came here on a day when I was in a hurry, I was grumpy, or I didn't feel like dealing with a restaurant's unique food formatting and policies, I might have walked out without ordering. The whole set-up seemed unnecessarily confusing. The "salad box" works like this. You start out with a round plastic bowl, not a box.) The bowl comes with a bed of lettuce (50/50 romaine and greens) and five falafel balls. Then you get a choice of a few different add-ons. I chose hummus and avocado. These steps are assembled by the counter guy. After he finishes this part, he hands you the box and then you can add more things from the salad bar. You can add all that you want into the bowl on a single trip. They make it abundantly clear that this is not an all-you-can-eat buffet-type salad bar a la Fresh Choice. So, you had better pile it on during your lone trip to the salad bar. If I was eating eight salads in a single day, I could have piled on an ungodly amount of salads into that box, but I decided to keep it plentiful but sane. The bowl had no more than a pound of plant matter inside. A fair amount, I felt. To the aforementioned ingredients I added the following salad bar items myself- carrot salad, beet salad, coleslaw, veggie salad (carrot coins, cauliflower, etc.), tomato wedges, sliced onions, and yogurt sauce.

If Maoz would have been around during the falafel session, it would have destroyed the competition. Today, only Oasis and another place I stopped later on the salad session are in the same falafel league as Maoz in the East Bay. The balls are extra crispy and seasoned correctly. The falafel were cooked to order here, still hot and crunchy on top of the salad, like the world's greatest crouton. The hummus was okay, but still somewhat out of balance. I've said it before. Getting the perfect garbanzo:tahini:garlic:lemon juice ratio is nearly impossible.

The salads from the self-service bar were gorgeous with their vibrant hues, but they tasted like their core vegetable without any zim or zam. And the yogurt "sauce" was just liquid yogurt. I could not taste anything in there other than plain old yogurt. I know they have spices at Maoz. The falafel was a taste explosion. Why dish up such neutral-tasting salads? Perhaps they don't want the falafel to be upstaged. I can understand this line of thinking, but it would take more than a little vinegar and black pepper on a beet salad to overpower these mighty balls. Maoz is worth a return for the falafel alone, but I may have to employ some of their other dressings if I try the salad box again. The falafel stifled its supporting players like Lee Marvin showing up on an episode of Hogan's Heroes.

After the Maoz salad, I felt only a slight semblance of a trace of fullness setting in. Gas had not even begun to develop in my entrails. I was riding high in the saddle. Unfortunately, the next stop was the 500lb. gorilla in the room.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

IEM Session #16.3

Inhuman Eating Machine official rules and guidelines

(continued from 16.2)

Eating Day: March 19, 2011, yet again

NEW AMSTERDAM COFFEE- University Avenue, Berkeley, 12:12pm- The Big Salad- $7.25

Photo by Tigerlily

After a trip to the ill-conceived Emeryville Target store to purchase batteries, Lily and I ventured to the heart of downtown Berkeley. If Tomate is quintessential old-time Berkeley and Actual is North Oakland personified, then New Amsterdam is a prime example of the sort of establishment so prevalent in the vicinity of UC Berkeley. Tomate was populated by older types with frizzy hair and wide-wale cordurorys who have undoubtedly done time as Cal faculty. New Amsterdam, however, has a grad-school vibe to it. Their key demographic surely consists of teaching assistants who are enrolled in programs that are sufficiently esoteric to make any future career aspirations futile. There is a lot of soccer paraphernalia strewn about the place and there is always some kind of soccer-related programming on the television behind the counter. There are murals on the inside walls that depict what I assume to be the Netherlands. Perhaps the owner is from Holland. Or maybe the soccer theme is naught by a ruse set forth to give the illusion of worldliness.

In case you had forgotten, the session took place on a cold, gray, rainy day- the stuff of Natalie Merchant songs. Salads are not a meal that engenders warmth, so I was even more sensitive to the act of pure barbarism delivered upon me by a steady stream of customers who came in and out of the New Amsterdam to place coffee orders. These 20-somethings repeatedly exhibited an utter lack of regard for human life, leaving the front door open several inches. This offense allowed excruciating blasts of storm to enter the room, making me even colder than I was before entering. Who does such a thing? Why not pull the door completely closed? These devils seemed to be perpetrating this deed intentionally. It was not difficult to merely pull the door a few more inches to its rightful resting place. Is this what "acting locally" is all about? This travesty forced me to become fixated on the frequently ajar door, leaping up to close the door myself, when necessary.

Luckily, I soon became aware of the two guys sitting in the front table and forgot about my imminent frostbite. I assume these fellows were both video game designers. By their tone, I gathered that they had just met and they were on a business luncheon. They seemed to be trying to one-up each other with their brilliance. In a single sentence, I heard one of the nerds utter the words, "coalesce," "crux," and "gestalt." He seemed astounded when his compatriot appeared to understand the words' definitions. If these future billionaires weren't enough, I was seated across from the least-convincing transsexual/transvestite in history. In his/her early fifties, this character was dressed in Riot Grrrl garb, circa 1992. With the high Doc Martens, torn fishnets, and Abe Vigoda-esque bags under his/her eyes, this tranny made Dame Edna look like Christina Aguilera.

I could have sworn that I had told the guy at the register that I wanted to eat my salad in the restaurant. Nonetheless, it arrived in a square cardboard box, similar to a Chinese food container, but without the whimsical Asian characters on the side. New Amsterdam's "Big Salad" comes stock with romaine, seasonal greens, cucumbers, and red onions. Then you get your choice of 3 additional items from a list of about 20 vegetables, legumes, cheeses, etc. Some kind of meat was also available, but that cost extra. I ordered artichoke hearts, avocado, and seasoned chickpeas on mine. I have discovered in my travels that you get far more roughage when you order a big salad to eat-in than you when you get the salad to go. If I was a cheating man, I could have saved myself some agony and ordered all of the salads to-go after New Amsterdam mistakenly gave me my salad in a box. But I do not cheat my readers! The salad was heavy on the romaine, with just a hint of the seasonal greens, but there was a good deal of cucumbers and the add-ins I had chosen. The avocado was at the perfect level or ripeness and the artichoke hearts were tender with a slightly vinegar-y zing. The seasoned chickpeas didn't really seem very seasoned, though, unless New Amsterdam's idea of "seasoning" means salt. I remembered to get the dressing on the side this time. It was a slightly sweet offering, which was surprising for a dressing that was supposed to be smoked paprika. The dressing wasn't bad by any means, but it tasted kind of store bought, even though it probably wasn't.

The salad here was definitely acceptable, but I was somewhat disappointed. On my sole previous visit, the salad here made a very positive impression on me. I am not certain what happened, so I can only blame the fact that they erroneously gave me the salad to-go. Perhaps they were trying to send me a message.

P.S. Restaurateurs, please stop putting lemon slices into pitchers of water. A fresh slice of lemon on the side of a glass is fine. But when lemon wedges sit for hours in a pitcher of water, the water does not taste of citrus. It just tastes bitter and dirty.