Archive for June 2012

Our Hawaiian honeymoon: Day three

June 29, 2012

[Catch up on what happened on the first day and the second day of our adventure.]

Day three began with breakfast at a joint called Cheeseburger in Paradise. We did not — repeat, not — have cheeseburgers for breakfast. We did, however, have a sweet view of Waikiki Beach through the restaurant’s open window.

Paradise. Cheeseburger not required.

In case you were curious, this outlet is part of a chain that is apparently unrelated to the similarly named chain owned by singer Jimmy Buffett, whose similarly named song clearly inspired both chains. Now you’re not curious, merely confused. Join the club.)

Appropriately stoked with high-protein, high-carbohydrate fuel, we were itching to break in the snorkeling equipment we’d purchased the day before. Thanks to a tip from a guidebook and a recommendation from our Cheeseburger waiter — whose name was not Spicoli, but could well have been — we loaded up our rental car and headed for the north shore of Oahu. Specifically, we aimed for a spot dubbed Shark’s Cove.

Shark's Cove: Just because we didn't see sharks, doesn't mean you won't.

We did not — repeat, not — see any sharks. We did, however, spend a couple of joy-filled hours swimming with a variety of gorgeous tropical sea life, including an array of colorful fish that would do justice to any aquarium. In fact, snorkeling at Shark’s Cove offered a taste of what it might be like to swim in an aquarium, were one thus inclined.

A few tips we’d pass along to other snorkelers who make the trek to Shark’s Cove:

  • Get there early in the day. Parking is limited, and somewhat challenging to negotiate.
  • Leave your flippers in the car, or better yet, at your hotel. The rocky seascape here renders fins useless — or worse, makes them an encumbrance. Unless you’re venturing well out into deep water — which we would heartily advise against — flippers won’t benefit you in this environment.
  • Do, on the other hand, wear water shoes. The reef and rocks at Shark’s Cove are razor-sharp, as the numerous gashes they ruptured in my knees will demonstrate.
  • Currents here can be very powerful. As alluded above, it’s easy to get beaten up here by waves dashing you against the rocks. It’s easy to imagine that if you venture out beyond the relative shelter of the cove, fighting the motion of the ocean could quickly develop into a losing battle. Be careful out there.
  • Take a cheap waterproof camera. We didn’t, and wished we had.
  • As is true anywhere in Hawaii, don’t leave anything of value visible in your car. Predators abound. We didn’t encounter any problems ourselves, but all those signs posted everywhere warning you about thievery are there for good reason.

We give Shark’s Cove high marks as a snorkeling venue. It’s well worth the drive around the island from Honolulu to check it out.

On our way back into the city, we stopped for lunch at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck in Kahuku. There are probably a couple dozen food trucks and shacks of every description as you drive through Kahuku on the Kamehameha Highway, all specializing in freshly caught local shrimp. (Imagine if Forrest Gump and his pal Bubba had moved to Hawaii and chosen the slacker life, rather than opening that gaudy chain of touristy restaurants.) Of these, Giovanni’s enjoys the most widespread reputation — a reputation we found well deserved.

We shared a plate of the hot and spicy shrimp; they were indeed as volcanic as advertised (a sign cautions that they don’t offer refunds if you find the dish too hot) and quite delicious. Or, to say it local-style, “Da shrimps stay so ono, broke da mout’! Chee!”

Giovanni's hot and spicy shrimp: Local-kine grinds... so ono!

Giovanni’s surrounds its truck with a nice permanent set-up, featuring picnic tables shaded by an open-air roofed structure, sinks for postprandial hand-washing, and indoor restrooms. There’s also a shave ice truck on site in case you need help cooling your mouth after downing the shrimp.

Appetites sated, we continued on to Valley of the Temples Memorial Park in Kahaluu. This multicultural cemetery features a half-scale replica of the ancient Byodo-In Buddhist temple in Uji, Japan. It’s a stunning building nestled in a lush, serene location at the base of the Ko’olau range.

Byodo-In Temple, Valley of the Temples Memorial Park

We spent a blissful hour wandering through the temple and its grounds, soaking in the quiet, admiring the architecture, and watching the fog creep in over the mountains. The Pirate Queen enjoyed seeing the massive Buddha statue inside the temple (she’s seen me shirtless often enough that you’d think this wouldn’t be much of an attraction, but apparently it was) and ringing the colossal bell in the courtyard.

I watched as a black swan scudded along the surface of the pond. I think she and your Uncle Swan shared a bonding moment.

When a swan meets a Swan, coming through the rye...

Our next stop, Nu’uanu Pali, offered a breathtaking view of the windward shore of Oahu from 1200 feet up the side of the dormant volcano. When I say “breathtaking,” I’m not speaking hyperbolically. The wind rips through the mountain pass with gale-like velocity, producing sufficient chill to make you forget for a few minutes that you’re in the tropics. Despite the briskness, the view is nothing short of incredible.

The view from Nu'uanu Pali Lookout

One can see all the way to the offshore island called Mokoli’i (“little lizard” in Hawaiian), also known as Chinaman’s Hat — or, as we might put it in these more ethnically sensitive times, Asian Person of Chinese Extraction’s Hat. We were, however, eager to get back into the cozy, cyclone-free confines of our rented Toyota in fairly short order.

Safely back in Waikiki, we ventured across the street from our hotel for dinner at Sansei. The Waikiki branch of a local chain of upscale sushi restaurants, Sansei serves up an intriguing spectrum of dishes, some of which can best be described as “experiments in seafood.” Some of the experiments work better than others — one or two of the combinations we ordered seemed to be outré for the sake of outré -ness — but on the whole, we enjoyed the dining experience, bizarre flourishes and all. It was pleasant to relax on the restaurant’s third-floor lanai in the relative cool of the evening, tucked around the street corner from the bustle of the main drag. Plus, there were those mediocre Hawaiian-tinged cover tunes wafting across from the tiki bar to serenade us.

Thus ended our third day in the islands. I’ll regale you with tales of Day Four soon.

San Francisco Restaurant Resolution: Week Three — Town Hall

June 22, 2012

The third week of our eatery exploration (read this first if you missed the original premise) found us celebrating our first monthiversary at a restaurant called Town Hall. I thought this would be an appropriate location for a special celebration, because our first outing as an “official” couple — the first time the Pirate Queen introduced me as “the boyfriend” to people she knew — was a company holiday party a year and a half ago at San Francisco City Hall. Since I didn’t think Mayor Lee would let us set up a candlelit table in his lobby, Town Hall — which, as it happens, is nowhere near City Hall — seemed like the next best thing.

Town Hall is located in SOMA (that’s “South of Market,” for you out-of-towners) in a building that I suspect was once a factory or warehouse. Due to the entire interior surface of the restaurant being exposed brick and glass, sound reverberates through the dining room like a colossal echo chamber. Dinner at Town Hall is, for this reason, a little like eating next to a jet turbine running at full throttle. It may be the loudest place I’ve ever taken a meal where there wasn’t a baseball or basketball game being played. (The noise pollution on the night we visited was exacerbated by a tableful of testosterone-fueled yuppie businessman types whose conversational volume level betrayed the quantities of adult beverage they had consumed during their stay.)

Fortunately, the food kicks butt.

I started with an appetizer of barbecued shrimp, served in a decadent Worcestershire-based sauce that perfectly melded sweetness and sharpness. A pair of old rubber galoshes, grilled and covered with this sauce, would be awesome. The shrimp, tasty in and of themselves, were exquisite. I was glad that the Pirate Queen talked me out of my first choice, buttermilk biscuits accompanied by prosciutto and red pepper jelly. (But we’re going back to Town Hall, specifically for those biscuits.) The Pirate Queen kicked off the festivities with piquillo peppers stuffed with blue crab and cheese, which she described as outstanding.

For my entree, I chose the buttermilk fried chicken. Now, let’s be honest — the best fried chicken comes from your grandma’s stovetop, not a fine-dining kitchen. Most restaurants that serve fried chicken opt for either of two extremes: crispy but blandly flavored, or deliciously seasoned but mushy and greasy. Town Hall achieves that rare split up the middle — a crust that’s light and crunchy but also redolent with spices. The meat underneath was done to a turn while still moist and juicy. It wasn’t the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten, but it reminded me of that one, which is about as good as you can find. I’d have taken a bucket home if they’d let me. The Pirate Queen loved her main course of bacon-wrapped trout — she said that her favorite fish arrived perfectly cooked, and you know… bacon. (Quite a few dishes at Town Hall feature bacon. I’m not saying that as though it’s a bad thing.)

In addition to the cuisine, we gave high marks to our server, who made a couple of spot-on suggestions, and was attentive without being intrusive.

To reference an old proverb:  You can’t fight City Hall, but you can fight hunger at Town Hall. This superlative eatery nearly pegs the Uncle Swan ratings meter with a lofty four tailfeathers out of a possible five. I’d have given them four and a half, as the Pirate Queen suggested, but I feel compelled to dock half a tailfeather for the excruciating noise level. Still, Town Hall delivered the finest flavors we’ve sampled so far on our summer tour. It’s definitely cleared itself a spot on our “must go back” list.

You’ll find Town Hall at 342 Howard Street, South of Market in downtown San Francisco. It’s an easy two-block walk down Beale Street from the Embarcadero BART and MUNI station.

Our Hawaiian honeymoon: Day two

June 15, 2012

[If you missed what happened on the first day of our adventure, read about it here.]

Our first full day in Hawaii — and all of our days in the Islands proved remarkably full — began with breakfast at LuLu’s Waikiki, conveniently located just around the corner from our hotel. With its spacious open-air dining room and decent food, LuLu’s quickly established itself as our go-to spot for morning fortification. (The popular breakfast choice on the Waikiki strip is a joint called Eggs and Things, centrally located in the hotel district, but we never saw a morning where that place didn’t have a line out the door. We didn’t fly all the way to Oahu to stand in an hour-long queue for an omelette.) LuLu’s is primarily a sports bar — judging by the decor, the owners are major Boston Red Sox fanatics — but they dish up a perfectly acceptable breakfast, and we never had a problem getting seated quickly so we could speed along with our touring.

Iolani Palace: Not the actual home of Hawaii Five-O.

Appetites sated, we headed for our first sightseeing stop: Iolani Palace, former residence of the Hawaiian royal family and the only royal palace located on U.S. soil. Iolani was high on the Pirate Queen’s list of must-dos, and she was duly impressed with the spectacle on display. After donning handmade cloth booties that fit over our shoes (to protect the palace’s vintage hardwood floors from thousands of clumsy tourist feet), we joined our docent, Cousin Tino — everybody’s your cousin in Hawaii — for a guided tour. You can’t take photographs inside the palace, but trust me when I tell you that you’ve never seen a house quite like this one.

Iolani Palace: "The Life of the Land is Perpetuated in Righteousness"

Between the opulent furniture, museum-quality artwork (mostly portraits of the Hawaiian royal family, and other monarchs whom they befriended), and fascinating history, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit. Cousin Tino made the time both informative and entertaining (we were his last tour of the morning, and a relatively small group, so he treated us to an extended stay with “extra stories”).

Ali'iolani Hale: Also not the actual home of Hawaii Five-O.

Following our stroll around Iolani Palace, we ventured across the street to check out the exterior of Ali’iolani Hale (“House of the Heavenly King”), the building that formerly served as the seat of Hawaiian government and today houses the state’s Supreme Court. It’s most recognized for the familiar statue of King Kamehameha I that decorates its courtyard. If you watch the current version of the TV series Hawaii Five-O, you might also recognize Ali’iolani Hale as the headquarters of Steve McGarrett and company. I regret to inform you that the Five-O team does not actually work here, and in fact, does not exist. Sorry… fiction. (Viewers of a certain age might recall that the original Hawaii Five-O used shots of Iolani Palace as the team’s home base. Sorry… also fiction.)

Kamehameha the Great: Not the original statue.

Ali’iolani Hale’s Kamehameha statue has a rather amusing back-story. Commissioned in 1878 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawaii (an arrival that didn’t turn out all that well for the captain), the Kamehameha statue was designed by Thomas Gould, an American sculptor living in Italy at the time, and cast in bronze in Paris. Unfortunately, the ship carrying the statue from France to Hawaii sank off the Falkland Islands, and the statue was thought lost to the Atlantic. The forward-thinking Hawaiian government had taken out a hefty insurance policy, the payout from which paid for a recasting of the statue, which Gould promptly shipped. But wait! Enterprising local Falklanders recovered the original statue and sold it back to the wrecked ship’s captain, who in turn sold it to the Hawaiian government. Finding themselves with two identical statues, the Hawaiians installed the original on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast, near Kamehameha the Great’s birthplace, and mounted the replica — which you’re looking at here — in front of Ali’iolani Hale.

Next, we made a stop at a Wal-Mart to purchase snorkeling gear that we’d use during the trip. We scored complete sets of equipment — snorkels, masks, fins, and water shoes — for a relative pittance. Wal-Mart in Hawaii is pretty much like Wal-Mart on the mainland, only with more aloha shirts and macadamia nuts, and with an L&L Hawaiian Barbecue concession instead of a McDonald’s.

National Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater

Our travels next took us up into the hills overlooking downtown Honolulu, to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Puowaina. Lodged in the lush green concavity of an ancient volcanic crater (hence the nickname “Punchbowl”), the cemetery houses the remains of thousands of military veterans. Punchbowl is also home to a group of ten marble memorials to Service personnel from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War whose remains were never recovered — “whose earthly resting place is known only to God.”

Dedication stone, Court of the Missing at Punchbowl Cemetery

It’s a touch ironic, I suppose, that in a place as teeming with tropical life as Oahu so many of the attractions that draw attention are memorials to the deceased. Having grown up in a military family, however, I’m acutely conscious of the sacrifices our Servicemen and Servicewomen are called upon to make. For that reason, it was important to me to take the drive up to Punchbowl with the Pirate Queen, whose father was a sailor during the Second World War.

Statue of Columbia at Punchbowl Cemetery

Overseeing Punchbowl from the head of an enormous staircase is a statue of Columbia, the mythic female figure who personified the young United States in the 18th and 19th centuries — hence the name of the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia. (Moviegoers know her better as the logo of a popular film studio.) Columbia pretty much got shoved aside in American symbology in favor of Lady Liberty around the turn of the 20th century, but when Punchbowl was dedicated in 1949, she received her corner in the limelight.

All aboard for Paradise Cove!

Our day transitioned from reverence to revelry in the late afternoon, when we and a few dozen of our new closest cousins boarded a bus bound for the Paradise Cove Luau. When planning our luau experience, the Pirate Queen and I had debated driving our rental car out to Ko Olina on the far western edge of the island, where Paradise Cove is located. Our decision to take the shuttle instead proved perspicacious, as the slog through Honolulu’s rush-hour gridlock took nearly two hours to traverse. Much better to relax in air-conditioned comfort while letting a professional manage the stress.

Now, you might be thinking, “Isn’t a commercial luau all touristy and whatnot?” Um, hello… we’re tourists.

Paradise Cove's dancing cousins... well, probably not actual cousins.

Never having been to Hawaii before, the Pirate Queen wanted to take in a few of the classic essentials: see the kalua pig rise from the imu (the underground fire pit in which the pig is roasted); taste some poi; get a temporary Polynesian tattoo; watch some hula and a fire knife dance. Paradise Cove delivered on all of her expectations, in fine style. We scored front-row seats for the imu ceremony. The Pirate Queen was chosen as one of the audience participants in the always hilarious poi tasting (a culinary undertaking she will not eagerly repeat). She got a lovely flower drawn on her arm by a handsome, shirtless young Hawaiian gent. (She had mostly perspired through the tattoo by the time we got back to Honolulu.) We had a pretty fair meal and a great view of the entertaining show, complete with the requisite hula and fire knife dancers. We shared our table with a nice young couple from Australia, from whom we learned that Burger King franchises Down Under are called Hungry Jack’s (hey, you never know when trivia like that might come in handy) and whose accents I struggled to commit to memory for future voiceover projects. And, we saw an amazing sunset over the Pacific.

Sunset at Paradise Cove

All in all, we enjoyed a delightful evening of stereotypical aloha.

And that was our second day on Oahu. I’ll regale you with the Day Three doings next time.

The perfect Cain

June 14, 2012

Over at — a site owned by a network that typically can’t be bothered to cover the Giants because, after all, we don’t have real sports out here on the Left Coast — David Schoenfield just asked the question, “Did Matt Cain throw the greatest game ever?”

Well, let’s see…

Matt Cain's perfect game: June 13, 2012

No hits.

No walks.

No baserunners.

27 up, 27 down.

14 strikeouts, tying the record for the most ever in a perfect game… a record set by Sandy Koufax, who for five seasons may have been the greatest pitcher ever.

A feat accomplished only 22 times in the 130-plus years of baseball history.

Yes, Mr. Schoenfield…

I believe he did.

You go, Matty. We’re glad you’re on our side.

San Francisco Restaurant Resolution: Week Two — La Taqueria

June 12, 2012

For our second weekend of new-to-us restaurant exploration (read this first if you missed the original premise), the Pirate Queen chose what many diners consider the best place in The City to score authentic Mexican food. We needed a no-frills, hassle-free stop on our way out of town for a concert, and La Taqueria on Mission fit the bill.

La Taqueria: Best in the world? I think not.

The prosaically named La Taqueria frequently appears on lists of San Francisco’s tastiest budget-friendly eateries. Its carnitas taco ranks at #4 on 7×7’s 2012 Big Eat, the local magazine’s annual checklist of “100 Things to Eat Before You Die.” When you enter the restaurant, you’re greeted by an entire wall plastered with dining awards and honors, in addition to a blazing neon sign that boasts, “The Best Tacos and Burritos in the Whole World.” That’s a lofty standard for the Mission District, home to more taquerias than you can shake your sombrero at. So, we went in with high expectations. Did La Taqueria deliver?

Well… sort of.

The Pirate Queen ordered two tacos, one filled with carne asada and one with chorizo. I mixed things up differently, pairing a carne asada burrito with the highly touted carnitas taco. We shared a basket of chips mounded with the house salsa. All five of our items proved delicious. The meats were uniformly well-cooked, tender, and flavorful. The beans in my burrito were nicely seasoned and boiled whole rather than refried. The chips offered good solid crunch, and the salsa accompanying them tasted fresh and bright.

But I kept looking at that sign, and asking myself, “Is this really the best taco and burrito in the whole world?” Bite after bite, the answer came back, “Not so much.”

Tacos at La Taqueria

I’m not even sure that La Taqueria serves the best tacos and burritos in the Mission, much less the entire planet. They’re good, yes, but not exceptional. In fact, the last burrito I ate in the neighborhood, at El Toro (on Valencia, between 16th and 17th Streets), was at least the equal of my La Taqueria example, and might have been just a skosh better. It was certainly bigger, and perhaps better value for the money. That’s one of the challenges at La Taqueria. Unlike most of their Mission competitors, they only make burritos in a single modest size, which pales in comparison to the deluxe and super options at other taquerias. If you have a decent-sized appetite, you’ll need to add at least an extra taco to your order so you don’t walk away still hungry.

The quality of the fare at La Taqueria is unquestionably high. Little complaints bugged me, though. Both the carnitas and the carne asada contained far too much juice for the amount of meat. While I have no issue with moist meat as opposed to the dry and tough variety, an overabundance of liquid results in limp tortillas and an overall soggy finished product. My burrito and taco both proved too waterlogged to be consumed out of hand, leaving me to poke into them with a flimsy plastic fork. That’s not my ideal taco- or burrito-eating experience.

I had a similar issue with the chips-and-salsa combination. There was absolutely nothing wrong with either element on its own. (I prefer a lighter, less dense tortilla chip, but that’s strictly an individual aesthetic.) However, I’d rather have my salsa served in a separate container, so that I can apply it to individual chips as I dine, thus maintaining chip integrity. La Taqueria dumps the salsa on top of the chips like cheese on a bad ballpark nacho, and achieves the same unfortunate effect — sodden chips that are both difficult to handle and less than pleasant to eat, tasty though they might be.

Chips and salsa at La Taqueria

As taquerias go, La Taqueria provides a better than average atmosphere for your culinary pleasure. The walls of the funky dining area are festooned with posters from old Mexican films. I got a chuckle from the visual pun created by the poster for a movie entitled “A.T.M.” mounted immediately above the ATM. The furnishings are simple yet comfortable, and there’s patio seating out front if you care to watch vagrants meandering by as you nosh. Counter service was efficient, if not particularly engaging. Once we placed our order, food was dispensed with lightning quickness.

Clearly, thousands of folks — many of whom paraded in and out of the restaurant during our dining hour — hold La Taqueria in much higher esteem. All of the points I make above are subjective. I certainly enjoyed the flavors of my repast at La Taqueria, and I wouldn’t mind eating there again. With so much nearby competition for my Mexican cuisine dollars, though, I’m sure that I’ll probably find my way into several other joints in the Mission before I circle back around to this one.

On the Uncle Swan scale, La Taqueria rates three tailfeathers out of a possible five. The Pirate Queen, less easily impressed than I, lobbied for two and a half, but I’m in a generous mood. You could certainly do far worse than this if your tastebuds are in a Mexican frame of mind, but I’m equally certain that you could do better, too. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to check that carnitas taco off your bucket list.

You’ll find La Taqueria at 2889 Mission Street (between 24th and 25th Streets) in San Francisco.

A final sting from the Scorpions

June 11, 2012

The Scorpions: Klaus Meine, Matthias Jabs, Rudolf Schenker, and Paweł Maciwoda

Let’s get this on the table right now: I wouldn’t describe myself as a huge Scorpions fan. (We’ll leave the issue of whether I would ever describe myself as a “huge” anything for another time.)

Back in my radio days, I always thought of the Scorpions as “that German metal band with the weirdly misogynistic album covers” — i.e., the Scorps’ 1979 release Lovedrive, which depicted a woman with bubblegum stuck to her exposed breast. And, to be bluntly honest, too many of the Scorpions’ lyrics sounded like they were written by someone for whom English wasn’t a primary language… which, come to think of it, is true. I dug a few of their hits — “The Zoo” is a fun, chugging rocker with a catchy hook, “Wind of Change” is as solid a power ballad as the genre allows, and come on, who doesn’t bang his or her head to “Rock You Like a Hurricane”? — but not enough to land the group on my list of top-rated acts. Liked ’em, didn’t love ’em.

When the Pirate Queen mentioned a few months back that one of her favorite bands from the ’80s was coming to town, however, I rallied to the cause.

And so it was that last Saturday evening we made our way down to Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheatre — or as I prefer to call it, Le Grande Brassiere — to check out the Scorpions on their final pre-retirement tour. (Considering that Scorpions lead singer Klaus Meine turned 64 last month, and the band’s founder and guitarist Rudolf Schenker will join him at that age in August… yeah, it’s probably about time to hang ’em up.) The Pirate Queen had been ill for several days with a nasty cold, but as she put it, “Either you or I would have to be on our death bed for me to miss the Scorpions… and if it were you, I’d see if someone could watch you for a few hours.” (She was kidding. I think.)

The show kicked off with Tesla, the hard-rocking Sacramento quintet who’d opened for the Scorpions on their 2004 U.S. tour. (I gleaned this factoid from the back of a passing T-shirt.)

Tesla: Let's get uncoiled.

A talented act who’ve knocked around the circuit for nearly 30 years, Tesla’s repertoire boasts a total of two hit records — a power ballad with the astoundingly original title “Love Song,” which climbed into the Billboard Top 10 back in 1989, and a cover of the Five Man Electrical Band’s 1960s classic, “Signs.” The band served up their duo of familiar tunes, surrounded by plenty of perfectly serviceable filler, during an entertaining hour-long set.

Tesla guitarist Frank Hannon

To Tesla’s credit, their performance held my interest throughout, even though I couldn’t have named more than the aforementioned two songs. Lead singer Jeff Keith probably had better voice back in the day than he displayed on this particular night, but his cigarettes-and-whiskey rasp was more than enough to do the job. (I don’t know whether Keith either smokes or drinks, but if he doesn’t, he might as well. He already sounds as though he’s pounding down a fifth of Jack Daniel’s and two packs of Marlboros daily.) I was highly impressed with Tesla’s guitar combination of Frank Hannon — who worked much of his fretboard magic on a double-necked Gibson — and Dave Rude; I’d gladly pay to hear these two gents rip it up anytime.

I’ll award Tesla’s Saturday show two-and-a-half tailfeathers on the Uncle Swan scale of a possible five. They get docked a half for Jeff Keith’s wearing of the ugliest shirt I’ve seen on a rock concert stage in 35 years.

Tesla lead vocalist Jeff Keith: Dude, what's up with that shirt?

When the Scorpions took the stage (after nearly an hour of technical set-up), I could tell immediately that we were in for a fun evening. From the thunderous opening riff of “Sting in the Tail,” the title track of the band’s final all-original studio album, the Deutschland destroyers grabbed the audience by the throat and never let up.

Scorpions Rudolf Schenker and Klaus Meine

Klaus Meine displayed a remarkably powerful voice for a man of his advanced years — I’m sure that a couple of the high notes soared a half-tone or so higher in decades past, but all in all, the diminutive vocalist (who reminded me of the late Ronnie James Dio, another powerhouse instrument packed into an impossibly tiny frame) sounded about as incredible as he did on any of the Scorpions’ albums.

Scorpions lead vocalist Klaus Meine: He looks bigger on screen.

Meine’s vocals surfed above a sonic tsunami generated by one of the tightest — and unquestionably loudest — ensembles I’ve seen in a while. The Scorpions have always boasted a guitar tandem among the best in rock, starting from the band’s origins, when rhythm guitarist Rudolf Schenker played alongside his brother Michael, one of the most capable artists in the history of the instrument, to Uli Jon Roth, who replaced Michael on the Scorpions’ early albums and helped create the band’s signature sound. Rudolf hasn’t lost a step that my ears could detect, and lead guitarist Matthias Jabs — who joined the band in the late ’70s, just before the hits started coming — continues his dominant presence as the Scorpions’ melodic engineer. (It’s no accident that the Scorpions transitioned from metal legends to mainstream rock superstars when Jabs entered the fray.) Among the fastest fretmen in the game, Jabs blasted out one scorching cascade after another before taking the spotlight near the end of the set for a blistering extended solo (dubbed “Six String Sting” on the setlist) that would have made many of his fellow guitarists lay down their weapons in homage.

Scorpions lead guitarist Matthias Jabs: He be jabbin'.

Not to be outdone, drummer James Kottak kept the fire burning all night, combining powerhouse bass drum kicks with flashy stickwork across his kit, perched on a moveable riser that at times towered 20 feet above his colleagues. The lone American in the band, Kottak also added background vocals on several numbers while never missing a beat. His “Kottak Attack” solo featured his own customized music video — starring the drummer himself in a surrealistic parody of several of the Scorpions’ album covers — that brought down the house.

Scorpions drummer James Kottak: Attacking.

The Scorpions’ farewell tour setlist compiles most of their chart-making hits, including “Send Me an Angel,” “Holiday,” “Tease Me Please Me,” my favorite “The Zoo,” and the set-closing “Big City Nights,” while adding a sprinkling of more recent works, such as “Raised on Rock” and “The Best is Yet to Come.” (Interestingly, the show contained not a single number from their first five albums, a.k.a. the pre-Matthias Jabs years.) The band saved three of its biggest crowd-pleasers — “Still Loving You,” “No One Like You,” and of course, “Rock You Like a Hurricane” — for the no-surprises encore.

Scorpions: One final sting before retirement.

Uncle Swan gives the Scorpions a well-earned four tailfeathers out of five, and wishes them well in retirement. Assuming, of course, that they actually retire. Old rock bands never seem to truly go away, even when it’s time… just ask the Rolling Stones.

One final question, though… are there really scorpions in Germany?

Our Hawaiian honeymoon: Day one

June 8, 2012

Some of you have been clamoring for information about our little Hawaiian excursion. Well, for that subset of this rowdy crowd, this is your lucky day. That is, the first of your lucky days. This is going to take a few posts.

Our adventure began in the predawn hours of a chilly San Francisco morning… but I repeat myself. After being ferried to SFO by an upstanding member of the taxi-driving fraternity Hakka Cabba Dei, and thorough cavity searches performed by the ever-charming staff of the Transportation Security Administration, the Pirate Queen and I boarded a spacious Hawaiian Airlines Airbus and winged our way across the Pacific – a third of the way across the Pacific, at any rate – for the Land of Aloha.

With our suitcases crammed into the rear of our rented Toyota, we traversed the traffic-choked streets of Honolulu toward our Waikiki hotel. That’s far less easy than it sounds, because Honolulu currently holds the title of Gridlock Capital of America. Seriously – you can look it up. Driving in Hawaii’s largest city – okay, Hawaii’s only large city – involves navigating excruciatingly narrow roadways laid out with the organizational linearity of a bowl of spaghetti in the company of nearly a million people in no great hurry to get anywhere. Factor in the presence of tens of thousands of clueless tourists buzzing about blindly at the mercy of GPS or wandering blithely across intersections in flagrant violation of traffic signals, and you’ve got a prescription for automotive apocalypse.

But we got there: Waikiki Beach, U.S.A.

Waikiki Beach... you know you want to be there.

Upon our arrival at our hotel, we found ourselves confronted with a conundrum: What to do with our fine rental vehicle? The entrance to what appeared to be the parking area was rendered inaccessible by a massive delivery truck dropping off the day’s linens. We could spot no valet to whom we could hand over the keys. After several circuits of the crazily designed block, complicated both by one-way streets and hordes of fellow visitors, the Pirate Queen bailed out to seek aid in the hotel lobby while I sat in the blazing sun praying that the local gendarmerie didn’t happen by and cite me for double-parking. Eventually, the Pirate Queen returned with two fresh-faced young chaps, one of whom cheerily loaded our belongings onto a cart while his compatriot whisked the Toyota away for safekeeping. (Or joyriding. We didn’t really know at that point.)

Despite those frustrating first few moments, Hotel Renew turned out to be an excellent choice of lodging for our purposes. Located near the south end of Waikiki Beach, it’s far enough away from the major portion of attractions to be reasonably quiet – except for first thing in the morning, when the garbage trucks come clattering through the block – yet close enough to the beach that one can be sprawled on the world-famous sand after a mere two-minute stroll from the front door.

Hotel Renew... stay here, and get all renewed and stuff.

The Japanese-influenced décor, all straight angles and darkly painted wood, makes a soothing change from the typical chain hotel, and the staff is uniformly friendly and polite, if not always as Johnny-on-the-spot as they might be. The Pirate Queen, who’s known to be fussy about where she sleeps, found the bed and bathroom to her liking, while I was relieved to discover the in-room safe capacious enough for my mammoth laptop as well as all of our other valuables. All in all, we were glad we selected it.

Having settled into our accommodations, we launched ourselves on a leisurely promenade along Kalakaua Avenue, the street that traverses the tourist district. It had been 23 years since my last trip to Waikiki, and as KJ was heavily pregnant at the time, we didn’t do much extended walking. But I remembered traveling this stretch, and I was surprised both at what had changed in three decades and at what remained pretty much the same.

Waikiki Beach... smell the coconut oil on the sunbathing tourists.

What hadn’t changed:

An ABC Store on every corner, and sometimes two or three within a block. For the uninitiated, the ubiquitous ABC Store is Hawaii’s native mash-up of convenience store and touristy gift shop, and they are almost literally everywhere. I kept expecting to walk into a public restroom only to discover that they’d put an ABC Store in one of the toilet stalls.

This weird tree. This ginormous banyan should be transplanted to the grounds of Hogwarts. It’s freakin’ creepy. Albeit in a cool way.

Chinese music under banyan tree, here at the dude ranch across the sea

The crowds. We actually visited during one of Hawaii’s least jam-packed windows – the fallow period between the end of spring break in April and the start of summer travel season on Memorial Day weekend. But even in a traditional down time, Waikiki attracts tons of guests.

The International Marketplace. Imagine every cheesy jewelry, T-shirt, and souvenir shop in every tourist trap in America crammed into a colorful labyrinth of carts, stalls, and stands that winds along seemingly forever, and you’ll get the general picture of the International Marketplace. No wallet is safe.

Tall buildings. Did you know that Honolulu has more skyscrapers than any American city outside of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago? Just a tidbit of architectural trivia from your Uncle Swan.

This is a tall building. In case that wasn't obvious.

What was new:

Panhandlers. Having lived around, and now in, San Francisco – Mecca for America’s down and out – for 35 years, I’m no stranger to homeless people cadging change on street corners. I was startled, however, to see so many mendicants on the sidewalks of Waikiki. I understand how so many homeless folks get to The City; Greyhound offers a dirt-cheap bus ride from almost anywhere in the contiguous United States. But if you’re flat broke, how the heck do you get to Hawaii? I’ll say this, though — if you have to sleep outdoors, better to do it in balmy Honolulu than in the Arctic chill of San Francisco.

Upscale shopping. The spending experience along Waikiki has always been pricey, but it used to feature much more local flavor. It’s kicked up several notches now with the presence of numerous internationally renowned high-end retail stores. I’m guessing this marketing strategy must be successful, but I question the logic. Does anyone really come to a tropical beach town to buy a Coach bag or a Rolex?

Insane traffic. I mentioned this earlier, but it warrants repeating. Honolulu totally sucks if you’re behind the wheel of a car. I don’t remember it being anywhere nearly this wretched in decades past.

Tiki's Grill and Bar: Be sure to tip your waiter.

We consumed our first Hawaiian repast at a restaurant called Tiki’s Grill and Bar, conveniently located on the third floor of the hotel right next door to ours. The place features an extensive menu of vaguely tropical themed cuisine, most of which was reasonably tasty; a killer view of the Waikiki sunset; live music in the evenings – Honolulu is the universal nexus of lame cover tunes performed on public stages by guys wearing aloha shirts – and yes, oodles and oodles of tikis. A roving photographer snapped our photo (which we were able to purchase for a nominal fee, because there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch in Hawaii) to commemorate the event.

And that was our first day on Oahu. I’ll tell you about our second day in my next post.

Sunset on Waikiki Beach. Just say "ahhhhh."

San Francisco Restaurant Resolution: Week One — Bissap Baobab

June 4, 2012

Shortly before our wedding, the Pirate Queen and I discussed measures we could take to maintain the fun and newness of our courtship as we entered our Spousal Unit phase. (Frankly, we feared falling into a rut over time, as many couples do.) We thought about the activities we most enjoyed together as we were dating, one of which was exploring interesting new dining options. Given that we’re fortunate to live in one of the greatest foodie destinations in the world, there’s no reason to confine ourselves to the same old joints… as excellent as some of those old joints may be.

So, we made a pact: Every weekend between now and Labor Day, we’ll challenge our palates with a San Francisco restaurant that neither of us has patronized previously. By the end of the summer, we’ll have discovered at least fourteen new places to eat — some of which, we hope, might work themselves into our list of go-to spots.

This past weekend, we began our culinary journey at Bissap Baobab, a Senegalese restaurant in the Mission. (The signage on the building reads “Little Baobab.” Apparently, the restaurant under that name merged with another establishment nearby, called Bissap. If you look for reviews on Yelp, either the old name or the new will get you to the correct page.) Although both the Pirate Queen and I have traveled — and dined — internationally, neither of us had sampled Senegalese cuisine. Truth to tell, before arriving at Bissap Baobab, I wasn’t aware that Senegal had its own unique cuisine. But then, that’s one reason we’re undertaking this experiment — to learn about unfamiliar cuisines.

As it turns out, those Senegalese know a thing or two about food. We began our repast with two appetizers: aloko (fried plantains accompanied by a tangy yogurt-based sauce), and prawns swathed in a spicy red curry. I liked the plantains more than did the Pirate Queen — as you’ll doubtless deduce as you read this and future posts on this topic, she’s not partial to sweets — but we both agreed that the curry prawns were a hit. The sauce was pungent, but not overly intense, and with surprising levels of flavor. The shrimp themselves were slightly overdone, but not rubbery. (Shrimp may be the most difficult protein to cook perfectly. No, I take that back — octopus and squid are even trickier.)

The Bissap Baobab menu includes only five or six entrees, most of which consist of a basic sauce to which a selection of meats (or tofu, for you vegetarian types) can be added. Depending on the sauce, the meat options range from lamb or chicken to fish (tilapia, mostly) or prawns. All entrees can be accompanied with either rice or couscous. The Pirate Queen chose the yassa (a rich, mustard and onion-based sauce) with lamb, and enjoyed it thoroughly. My entree, called coco, consisted of a tilapia fillet grilled on skewers, then layered with a slightly sweet coconut-onion sauce and sliced potatoes. The fish was expertly cooked, and the well-balanced sauce made a perfect match.

We found the flavor profiles surprising and memorable. I expected something similar to either Moroccan or Ethiopian cuisine — two styles of cooking with which I’m quite familiar. Instead, Bissap Baobab’s food reminded me more of both Caribbean (which made sense, given the West African heritage of many Caribbean residents) and Indian cuisine, the latter of which came out of left field. The unique combination of spices, aromatics, and other ingredients is distinctive and very appealing, and I’ll look forward to other opportunities to expand my connection with this wonderful regional style.

As for the restaurant experience beyond the food itself: Like many restaurants here in The City, Bissap Baobab suffers from complications of space, or lack thereof. We were shoehorned into a corner in which our table wedged cheek-by-jowl with three other small tables, two of which were occupied by other diners. The staff, to their credit, figured out quickly that the arrangement was too cramped, and removed the unoccupied table to create breathing room between the three that remained. Aside from this minor snafu, we enjoyed our visit. Our waitperson offered friendly, helpful explanations of both the dishes and the drink menu, and answered all of our questions with a smile. Food arrived at our table with reasonable promptness, though we did have to wait a stretch to settle our check at the end of the meal. The interior of the space is decorated with bright, hand-painted murals that lend the ambiance a vibrant energy.

Uncle Swan gives Bissap Baobab a solid three-and-one-half tailfeathers out of a possible five. If you’d like to try a regional cuisine that offers some savory surprises, check out the Senegalese fare at Bissap Baobab the next time you cruise the Mission. (A bit of trivia: Bissap is the hibiscus flower; baobab is a fruit tree also called monkey bread.)

You’ll find Bissap Baobab at 3388 19th Street (between Mission and Capp) in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.

Comic Art Friday: Remembering Ernie Chan

June 1, 2012

While we were off gallivanting about the Hawaiian islands (more on that sojourn to follow), I received the sad (and to me, unexpected) news of the passing of comics artist Ernie Chan. Coming so closely on the heels of two other tremendous losses from among my personal favorites in the comic art field — specifically, Al Rio and Tony DeZuniga — Ernie’s death came as an especially great shock.

Storm and Beta Ray Bill, pencils and inks by comics artist Ernie Chan

In an industry often characterized by enormous egos and self-important personalities, Ernie Chan was one of the nicest, least pompous creators I’ve ever met. His smiling face and easygoing demeanor were indelible highlights of the comics conventions I attended over the years. I always looked forward seeing and chatting with Ernie — and of course, adding a new piece of his artwork to my collection.

Shang-Chi and the Bronze Tiger, pencils and inks by comics artist Ernie Chan

Ernie was among the dozen or so talented artists who joined the American comics industry from the Philippines in the early 1970s, under the pioneering leadership of Tony DeZuniga. Quickly, Ernie established himself as a two-way star, both as a penciler and inker. In the former capacity, he shone as DC Comics’ busiest cover artist during the mid-’70s, frequently signing his work “Ernie Chua” (a misspelling on his immigration paperwork). At Marvel, Ernie gained acclaim as inker on Conan the Barbarian, over the pencils of the legendary Big John Buscema. Ernie would revisit Robert E. Howard’s Cimmerian warrior in hundreds of drawings and commissions, including the Common Elements teamup with Iron Man he’s holding in this photo I took at WonderCon 2011.

Ernie Chan at WonderCon 2011

I frequently referred to Ernie as the Amazing Chan for his speed in delivering commissioned art. On more than one occasion, Ernie completed a fully penciled and inked piece for me in less than a day — not a convention sketch, mind you, but a detailed, cover-quality illustration completed in his home studio. Once, he sent me a scan of a finished Common Elements commission — this one, featuring Hawkeye and Lady Rawhide — before I knew that he’d even accepted the job. Now that’s fast.

Hawkeye and Lady Rawhide, pencils and inks by comics artist Ernie Chan

I’ll miss Ernie’s lively humor and fun-loving personality as much as I’ll miss seeing new creations spring from his potent pencils and pens. He was always a hoot to chat with, engaging to his fans, and with an inerrant eye for feminine pulchritude.

Rest in peace. Mr. Chan.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.