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The San Diego Chicken Pie Shop

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The San Diego Chicken Pie Shop…
I have never liked chicken pot pies. I know why too. My mother used to serve us kids those Swanson chicken pot pies all the time. The rubbery chicken turned my stomach. I would only eat the crust and that was not permitted in our house growing up. So when I moved to San Diego in the mid 70’s I was reluctant to try this place. I mean, I must’ve passed it dozens of times without giving it a second thought. At that time it was located at the corner of 5th & Robinson, but has since moved to a larger more modern facility on El Cajon Blvd.
Then one morning, a friend of mine from the San Diego Reader asked me to meet her at the Chicken Pie Shop for a late lunch. I agreed, but figured I’d get something else on the menu. When I arrived, I was taken with the fabulous interior…like out of a movie. I still remember the waitress that took our order (I would see her often on return trips before I eventually moved to Seattle). She called me “hon” and I wasn’t sure if it was part of her routine, but I still liked it. I also remeber that I was going to order something else on the menu…it’s actually kind of a retro coffee shop that’s been around since 1938 so I was going to order breakfast…probably biscuits and gravy (though this many years later I can’t remember WHAT I was GOING to order that first time!).
At any rate, as soon as I told the waitress what I wanted, my dining companion asked, “You’re not ordering the Chicken Pie?”

 

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I started to stammer my silly Swanson pie excuse, but she shook her head and told the waitress to bring us two chicken pie dinners which included mashed potatoes, a short crust chicken pot pie, both smothered in a yellow chicken gravy, peas, coleslaw, a few soft dinner rolls and a dessert (Always get the pie).

I’m so glad my friend insisted.
Of course, it turns out it was absolutely NOTHING like those inedible Swanson frozen pies. In fact, I realized that I had deprived myself of chicken pot pie based on ONE version.
I would come back time and again to the Chicken Pie Shop. I wouldn’t order the chicken EVERY time because they served a lot of other great food too, but I did eat a lot of chicken pies while I lived in San Diego. Pure comfort food. Their dessert pies were also great. Wonderful crusts. The place was never packed, the service was always fast and the waitresses were always part of the theater of the place. Back in the mid 70’s I was young and the rest of the customers were gray haired and seemed to linger there like they had nothing better to do. I can proudly say that I became a regular there.
Wish I could sit at that counter and order some pie now!

Current address for those of you lucky enough to be in or near San Diego…
Chicken Pie Shop
2633 El Cajon Boulevard
619-295-0156
M-F 10-8<br<Weekends 8-8

 

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The San Diego Chicken Pie Shop today on El Cajon Blvd.


Johnny Mars and The Knobs Return

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I have a friend. I’m a couple of years younger than him. He’s a semi-retired concrete contractor and we grew up in the same small town. Both of our fathers were Italian-American tradesmen. And both of us were raised in our father’s businesses. My friend’s father was a concrete contractor, and my pop was a carpenter contractor who eventually became a general contractor.
My friend, John Marsiglio is a lot more than an expert with concrete, though most would say he was a very skilled and talented cement contractor. He knows his craft and he practiced it well and successfully for years.
But Johnny’s passion has always been music. And playing the guitar. He’s been playing since junior high. And I still remember him first playing in bands at dances I went to in that same junior high. I moved away from my hometown back in the 70’s just out of college. I ended up on the west coast for over 25 years doing cartooning, illustration and comics. Johnny took over his dad’s business, but he never stopped playing rock and roll. He’s been in a band or fronted a band ever since those junior high school days.
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I moved back to the small town where we were raised about 20 years ago. I ran into some old friends and through one mutual friend I became re-acquainted with Johnny once again. And now that I was back, I would occasionally catch his performances at various venues in the area..one of my favorite clubs to hear him was a tiny little social club in Biddle, PA called The Serbian Club. Things could always get wild there and he had quite a local following. Hell, he had groupies!
With his now successful construction business, Johnny was able to front the money for a number CDs for a current band called The Knobs (which was actually the second incarnation of a band he started in high school, also called The Knobs.)
It came to pass that John was producing a new CD, with original songs that he wrote (because writing and performing his OWN songs is definitely a big part of his passion), and he asked me to design the packaging for the CD. I jumped at he chance to become involved. After that first one, other CDs followed and he gave me the opportunity to design those packages too. I had a ball designing the CD packages, but I had MORE fun designing the posters for the The Knobs gigs and CD release parties…
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Some CDs were fun-loving, good-time rock and roll statements, and others became reflections of the things Johnny was pondering at the time. From the growing division of the the country (featured in his CD titled The Two Americas), to coming to terms with aging and less of a road in front of us than behind us. With each CD I tried to reflect the vibe that Johnny was trying to creat musically. And with each CD I got to know my friend a little more intimately.
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Anyone that knows Johnny Mars (as we affectionately call him), knows that he worked hard. The concrete business isn’t for the faint hearted. And Johnny played hard. He had fun. And people liked to drink with Johnny because, well, he’s a great drinking buddy.
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He’s funny, he’s smart, and it might surprise many to now that he is also quite spiritual. We have had countless conversations about Buddhism and the nature of our being. The nature of compassion and mindfulness.
A few years ago, Johnny’s party caught up with him. We had often talked about getting older, slowing down, but there was still a no-surrender aspect to Johnny that could not be denied. He had a health threatening set back that scared the hell out of all of his friends and family. I dont want to over dramatize it, but it was one of those events that can’t help but take the wind from your sails. It was a significant setback physically. It robbed my friend of his ability to sing and play the guitar. It broke my fucking heart.
And broke a lot of other’s hearts as well.
Since the episode Johnny has been working at getting his movements and singing back. I know it’s been disheartening at times. It’s not an easy road back. But lately, my friend has been venturing out to play at open mike nights and working hard at finding his musical voice again. He never for a moment thought that he wouldn’t continue to play again. No matter how much work it took or how long it took.
I should confess that I hadn’t talked to my friend on the phone for quite a long time. We used to talk a lot more frequently, or at least see each other every couple of weeks or so. Catch up, see what was new with our families, talk about serious stuff, and not so serious stuff…talk about the magic of our grand children…
Truth was, it was hard for me to hear something different in his voice after he stated his road to recovery. I wanted to sound encouraging, but I don’t thnk I did. And over the months, it became easier to tend to my own life’s problems, and there were plenty.
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Then earlier this week, I was driving around Pittsburgh taking care of chores and minor business things and I happened to grab one of my favorite Knobs CDs titled “Daydrinkin” to listen to on the road. As I drove from place to place, I listened to that CD all day. Probably more than three times I played it. The songs were of the good-time variety and Johnny’s voice was sometimes sweet sounding and sometimes raucous. Each song lifted my mood higher.
When I got home, I knew I had to call him and I did, the very next day. It was great hearing his voice again. He told me that he was playing at an open mic thing on Main Street in our town at a place called the Colonial Grille Taproom. A place well known to me. I called another mutual friend of ours ( also a musician I’ve known since high school) and we made a plan to go see Johnny tonight.
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Here they are on stage at Colonial Grille Taproom.
I just got back from that gig. It was truly an experience that brought me great joy. And filled me with hope. I thought it would just be John and hisdrummer from The Knobs, but it turned out to be a Knobs reunion of sorts. The bass player who had moved to Florida just happened to be up here this week and the guitarist and drummer were there to back Johnny up. His voice sounded great. He had a great time. The crowd was a big one.
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There were other musicians playing tonight, of course. Other bands, including three other wildly talented guys sitting in as the “house band” — Kenny Blake, Jimmy Hilton and Kenny “the Alabama Slammer” Smith. Their music was very, very good, and the place was packed. Surprizingly, there were even a handful of people I hadn’t see in 40 years. I wasn’t expecting the turnout or seeing those old, old friends from high school, but I’m sure that many were there to see Johnny back up on stage too.
When Johnny Mars and the Knobs took the stage and started their set I was overcome with emotion. Johnny sounded good. I knew how hard he’d been working, playing the guitar and singing. After his set he was smailing. I think it was the first time he realized that he was a LOT closer to getting back to his old form. He managed to flirt with a few dancing women up front so I know he was feeling good. I managed to hold back the tears, but I’ve still got a bit of an afterglow.
I’m happy for him. And happy I got to see him play tonight.

The Ardmore Trolley and Bingo with Grandma Lizzie

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When my mother would go into the hospital to have a baby or have an operation, I would get to stay with my grandmother Lizzie. Part of our time every week was spent going to Bingo at a church in East Pittsburgh. We’d take the Ardmore Trolley (pictured here on Armore Blvd, in Forest Hills). I think it was Route 87. But first, we’d have to head to Homewood from her house on McCutcheon Lane (in an area between Eastwood and Rosedale) to get to the Ardmore Trolley. Then the rickety rackety trip on the rails through Forrest Hills to the Westinghouse town of East Pittsburgh.
Geeez, I loved that time with her…riding the trolley, just the two of us. And when I stayed with her she treated me like a Prince. Cookies, weak coffee, chipped ham or Jumbo sandwiches with Miracle Whip and cheese on Italian bread, a little glass of wine with dinner. What a life. I was so lucky…


Newtown’s Botsford Drive-In

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We have a house-guest today, here at the House of Zing, who has spoken highly of her local hometown Hot Doggery, the Botsford Drive-In. I take hometown food devotion very seriously so when Karen told me of her brother’s devotion to this joint as well as her father’s and her own, I had to look them up. Now I have another reason to visit Connecticut!

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From Roadfood.com:
“As professional travelers, we sometimes ask ourselves why we settled down in Connecticut. One answer is pizza: the best is here. Another good answer is hot dogs. We’d venture to say that there are more good hot dog joints per capita in Connecticut than in any other location, except perhaps New Jersey and the city of Chicago.

The Botsford Drive-In is one of the good ones. It’s inconspicuous, that’s for sure. A tiny rectangular building by the side of Route 25, it has no indoor seating whatsoever; and even the picnic-table accommodations are fairly sparse. There is a walk-up window and there is a drive-up window. Years ago, we used to avail ourselves of the drive-up window on horseback (Newtown’s bridal trails are just behind Route 25 at this point). Many customers dine in their cars in the parking lot.

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It seems that one of the most desirable aspects of the Botsford hot dog is its slight shrinkage of the skin (casing) which results in a crunchy, chewy outer covering of the tube steak once it’s cooked. I’m in!

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“As we said, hot dogs are the specialty of the house. They are grilled — long, slim, chewy ones that extend far beyond the split New England-style buns in which they’re nestled. Available configurations include a “Works” dog with mustard, relish, and sauerkraut, a “Texas” dog with hot chili, a “Messy” with the Works plus onions and chili, and a “King,” which is Works, onion, bacon, cheese, and chili.”


Car Wrecks

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The first study – a 1955 Chevy Bel Aire.

Wrecked cars have been a fascination of mine for much of my life. I wasn’t sure why exactly until I first started posting a few of my latest ink drawings on Facebook. There was quite a lively response. They surprised me and I was pleased that so many people liked them or had an emotional response to them.

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The second study – a 1949 Ford

Many of the comments confirmed that I am not the only one to find something fascinating in these studies of wrecked automotive machinery. However, that was not the only explanation that revealed itself.

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The third study – a 1954 Chevy

Among the different feedback comments, one in particular resonated with me. The reply in question was from one of my oldest childhood friends. A woman I grew up with, went all through school with and whose family was close to mine for my entire childhood. Her name is Ann. And of all the replies and comments associated with my wrecked car posts, only Ann knew, or remembered, or made the connection that I had been involved in a very serious car wreck of my own many years ago.

Only Ann knew that I escaped that accident terribly injured, but alive. The accident itself occurred a few years after high school when I was in college. It was just before Christmas and I was home on Christmas break. My girlfriend at the time was also home from college and we were doing some last minute shopping for the upcoming holiday.

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At the time I drove a 1967 MG Midget and it was the car of my dreams. I would just drive it for the fun of driving. I took it everywhere. Short road trips, long road trips, and especially drives on curvy country roads.

That night a few days before Christmas, the roads were clear. No snow, no ice. We were driving on a notoriously tricky four lane which had no center guardrails, just the double painted yellow lines separating oncoming traffic. I had just passed a trailer truck and was entering the last downhill curve that proceded our destination, a fairly new mall for the early 1970’s. A place we could easily finish our last-minute gift buying.

I have no recollection of what happened next, but was “told” days later by both my girlfriend, the State Police and my parents.

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Apparently, a 1970 Dodge Polara in the passing lane of oncoming traffic, traveling about 50 mph, crossed the double yellow line in the center of the highway and hit my MG head-on. After on-site anaysis of skid marks and eye-witness accounts it was established that I was going about 50 mph as well. However, the much larger car plowed into the left front of my car driving the smaller MG out of my lane and into the slow lane. The truck driver I had just past swung his big rig into the hillside to his right to avoid crushing me from behind. An act that no doubt saved my life as well as my passenger’s. The truck driver would remain at the scene and give emergency crews and the State Police his statement of events as he witnessed them. I was told by others that he also stayed to help the rescue crews free me and my passenger from the wreckage and he remained on the scene well after we had been taken to the closest hospital emergency room. I never got this truck driver’s name, but I owe him my life as much as all the others who saved me.

I awoke briefly in the hallway of the emergency room and was told by a nurse that I had been in an automobile accident. She asked me to stay calm and still. But that was all I remembered until a few days later when, under heavy sedation, I was in the hospital waiting for the swelling to go down from my various injured areas before surgery would commence. I can barely remember that time, but I’m aware that many people came to see me and that I must’ve looked absolutely terrifying. No one would let me see myself, my father telling me much later that I looked like a monster from a horror movie. I did, however see a slightly distorted reflection of my disfugured face in the chrome head mirror of one of the doctors who was examining my face at one point.

My jaw was broken, having bent the steering column with the thrust of my forward momentum. Left ankle was crushed, a result of the clutch pedal and brake pedal driven together on both sides of my ankle from the engine coming back into the firewall. My right knee was also smashed pretty good from slamming into the small metal dashboard in the MG. Most serious of all for me, a young would-be artist with a hope for a future as an illustrator or cartoonist, was the crushed thumb on my right hand.

No internal injuries, but that finding would prove to be false many, many years later. Stuff like that has a way of catching up to you.

It took the fairly new apparatus known as the “Jaws of Life” to cut me out of the car. Later I learned that I screamed the entire time they were cutting the steel trapping me in my beloved MG. A process that took about 20 minutes…though I remember nothing of the collision itself, my rescue, nor much of the days following the accident.

Miraculously, my girlfriend sustained only minor injuries compared to mine. A broken nose and a broken arm. Gratefully, no hospital stay required.

I was taken to a regional hospital because that was the closest emergency facility. My intial assessment was done by a team of physicians at that hospital. An assessment based on the capabilities of a regional hospital. A hospital with a more than capable staff of physicians and health care professionals. But it wasn’t a big city hospital with the kind of specialists that big city hospitals usually had back in the early 1970’s.

Here fate stepped in and did me a big favor.

My father was making a formal report about the accident to the local State Police barracks, the law enforcement division for the area where the accident occurred. As my father was talking to an officer at the front desk, describing the accident, my injuries, the prognosis etc.,  a well-dressed gentleman in a suit was also at the counter that day. He turned to my father, apologized for interrupting his narrative and addressed my father in a forthright manner.

“I couldn’t help but overhearing your description of your son’s accident and the injuries that he’s sustained.” said the man.

“I take it that no surgical procedures have been performed at this time?” he asked.

My father, thoughts still clouded by the shock of the accident and the future of my health, just shook his head and said, “No, they’re waiting for the swelling to go down before they can do any surgery. They say it might be a few more days…”

At this point, the man introduced himself as the Chief of Surgery from Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh and went on to tell my father about their Chief of Orthopedic Surgery, Dr. Parry, a doctor well-known as the very best orthopedic specialist in the tri-state area.

My father and the man talked at length about my injuries and the regional doctors’ talk of fusing my right thumb and my left ankle because the injuries were so severe. The Pittsburgh doctor insisted that my father consider transferring me to Mercy for a second opinion before committing to a fusion of any joints.

As a result, my father agreed and the Pittsburgh specialist arranged to have me transferred as soon as possible to Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh. I remember most of the hour-long trip in the ambulance to Mercy, two EMTs sitting in the back with me, keeping me calm and checking instruments hooked up to me.

The team assembled at Mercy came up with a more promising diagnosis and were able to complete all of my surgeries in one long session. Almost five hours later the jaw was wired and set and neither my drawing hand thumb nor my left ankle were fused. The right knee cap was salvaged for some reason and wired together. Although I would have some restricted mobility in both my right hand and left ankle, the expertise of the doctors and the chief surgeon of orthopedics allowed me to have a more normalized life after the accident.

During one of the few post-op visits from my orthopedic surgeon that I can recall this many years later, I remember that he was first person who actually told me how lucky I was to have survived that accident. He told me he knew of my artistic aspirations and told me that I had been given a second chance, and that I should go out and be that artist that I dreamed about. There was nothing to stop me.

I would see this doctor for the next two years with follow-up visits as my injuries continued to heal and I made progress with walking again and gaining dexterity with my hand. It was a lengthy recovery from some serious injuries, but his words from that one post-op visit hung with me. Even today, when faced with setbacks of any kind, or losses that seem unbearable, I remember that I was given a second chance. That I didn’t die in a car wreck at 19.

However, when I was doing these latest wrecked car drawings, I wasn’t thinking of my own wrecked car experience. At least not consciously. Not until my friend Ann asked me if these new drawings had anything to do with my own accident so many years ago. I have to admit that her question caught me by surprise. Completely.

And yet, every time I pass an accident on the highway, the emergency lights flashing, survivors standing off to the side as their smashed vehicles are being towed, or the ambulances standing by in a “ready” position off to the side of the road…

Every time I pass an accident I’m thinking about my own brush with death. My second chance.

So after Ann’s question, I had to rethink my motivations for drawing these wrecks now, at this time in my life. (And the others. I’ve only posted a few here.) I’m not entirely sure these drawing are motivated by my own accident, but then again it seems logical that they could be on some level. Doesn’t it?

I’ll let you know if I come to any final conclusions.

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The Exploding Nash – NOT a wrecked car.


The Isaly’s Ham BBQ Upgrade

 

 

IMG_4990.JPG“What is patriotism, but nostalgia for the foods of our youth?”

– An Old, Old Chinese Philosopher

 

When you move away from your hometown (your “neck of the woods”) to somewhere new, there often comes (after the excitement for the new) a longing for the food from your childhood. It could be your grandmother’s homemade pasta, or you mother’s meatballs, a certain pizza you had as a child that made a lasting impression.  Maybe it was a regional food that was served prominently in your part of the state. Maybe it was something like Isaly’s Chipped Chopped Ham from Southwestern Pennsylvania?

After living in San Diego for a little over a year and still exhilarated by the first Authentic Mexican food I’d ever tasted, I began to hanker for the less exotic foods of my hometown. My appetite for Mexican food had not diminished one bit, but every now and again, some childhood food memory crept into my psyche and created a brief pang of longing. It’s the curse of a big eater.

The first twinge was oddly centered around a giant fried fish sandwich I used to get from the Oyster House in Pittsburgh. What it made it so odd, was that even though San Diego was seaside city with some seafood restaurants, none of them except McDonald’s served a fish sandwich. And believe me, the Mickey D Filet-O-Fish was no Oyster House giant fish sandwich. Not by a long shot. So I resigned myself to waiting until I could return to Pittsburgh to satisfy that particular longing.

The next food I missed was a certain kind of sandwich. Really ANY kind of sandwich with quality Italian lunch meats. Alas, San Diego had no delis (or restaurants for that matter) that could appease my former love of subs or hoagies. There was not a single place in San Diego that sold hot Capicola (or Gabagool as many of my family pronouced it). Nowhere. Now, this was back in 1976 and I’m sure things have changed in San Diego by now. But back then…

At one point, I even missed good ol’ Isaly’s Chipped Chopped Ham. Also not available in San Diego or anywhere in the west. And the first thing I did upon a return visit to my Pennsylvania hometown from San Diego was to ask my mother to lay in some chipped ham so I could have a chipped ham sandwiches once I got back.

And here is where reality and fantasy sometimes collide. Upon tasting the original Isaly’s Chipped Ham I discovered I actually didn’t like it anymore. It was too fatty for my changed tastes. Just like I had never become a fan of Headcheese or Scrapple (two other luncheon meats popular in PA), I now found that I couldn’t stomach chipped ham! I thought maybe I could alter my tastes a little by adding the chipped ham barbecue sauce also sold by Isaly’s to add to chipped ham for what we simply called a ham barbecue sandwich.

But that didn’t really change my loss of love for chipped ham. So now that I’m back in my hometown (having lived on the west coast for over 20 years)  I’ve come up with a remedy for the ham barbecue sandwich. The Upgraded Ham Barbecue!

Here is the fool-proof, and much better tasting Zing version of that old favorite.

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First, get some Maple Ham lunch meat chipped or shaved (Forget the Chipped Chopped Isaly’s Ham once and for all). Place about 1/2 pound into a medium sauce pan.

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You can still use your good old fashioned Isaly’s Original Barbecue Sauce. You still want that sweet vinegary barbecue flavor.

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Before you add any heat to the meat in the sauce pan, add a small amount of sauce (about 2/3 to 1/2 o the jar) to the meat in the pan. Stir the sauce in well.

..then heat it on a medium high setting until it starts to bubble.

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Stir it every sooften to break up the meat a bit and coat ALL the pieces. It shouldn’t be too soupy as the fat from the chipped Maple Ham will make it juicier as it heats.

While the meat pot is on a low simmer, get your buns ready…use a firmer Kaiser roll instead of a regular hamburger bun. These can get messy and the Kaiser roll will stand up to the juiciness.

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Split the rolls and add them to a medium sized frying pan that you have already melted a 1/4 TBS of butter.

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Once the buns or rolls get a little toasty, they will smell like a grilled cheese sandwich. Remove them from the pan and place hem on your plate. If you want a bit of tang to cut the sweetness of the already sweet barbecue sauce and the maple-sweet ham try some Nance’s  Original Sharp & Creamy Mustard on one side of your roll.

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Get you some of that barbecue ham and lay it on top.

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If you’re like me, you already have some Root Beer in the larder.

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What are you waitin’ for? Get to it!

(Okay, one of these sandwiches will fill up anyone, but like I said, I’m a big eater. And A professional too. I can polish off a couple easily. Especially with a tall mug of root beer)

 

 

 

 


Cheeseburger on Main Street

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When I finally moved back to the small town where I was raised (in Southwestern Pennsylvania, after a 20 year hiatus on the west coast) I was full of hometown food nostalgia. Of course, I’m talking about the foods I grew up with served by some of the same places that were still here when I left. Giant fried fish sandwiches from the Original Oyster House in Pittsburgh,  certain types of pizza, snap-when-you-bite-em hot dogs with chili from the Original Hot Dog, Capicolla subs from the Triangle Grill in Swissvale etc. These were the landmark foods I’d missed in California and Washington State and I couldn’t wait to reacquaint myself with their tastiness.

What I had not imagined was an encounter I had with a simple cheeseburger on a chance visit to the Isaly’s still operational on Main Street in Irwin, the small town of my formative years. I had originally taken my wife Kate to this legendary dairy store to show her the interior “design” elements in the old place. Decorative wall treatments and signage my father, a contractor had created when he did a massive remodel of the Dairy Store in the early 1970’s before I’d finished college and moved to San Diego. I was still working with pop, still in college and assisting a small crew of talented and capable young men in the major renovation. We had to do all of the work during the night so the store could remain open for business during daylight hours.
The menu sign elements and color scheme of the interior were basically the same as when we had completed the remodel over 20 years before.

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Walking into the place, I found the layout of the deli case still at the front of the store with a bakery section opposite and a small restaurant counter and booths at the rear. The set-up all so familiar. I was surprized and elated. It was like walking back in time to the 1970’s store.

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However, the truly wonderful surprise came when we ordered a couple of cheeseburgers for lunch. To my delight, our grill man scooped fresh ground meat out of a plastic bin from under the counter and placed the balls of meat right onto the hot grill. A moment later, he smashed the burgers with a heavy metal spatula and let them sizzle. Then some thinly sliced onions went down alongside the burgers, followed by two hamburger buns laid on the other side the sizzling patties. In short order, the buns were coated in a shiny dome of grease. Another flip of the burgers, a quick slap of American cheese on the freshly flipped meat, a few moments to allow the cheese to melt on top crisping a bit as the hot cheese hit the griddle and they were done.

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When the burgers were set before us, they didn’t look like much. That’s what fooled me. One bite into the burger, however, told me that this humble dairy store had mastered the perfect cheeseburger. It was a quintisential ratio of bun to meat and the lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo fixings made it a consummate creation. Heaven help me, I had forgotten.

The Isaly’s is gone now, but that memory and my reintroduction to the perfect Isaly’s cheeseburger remains.

(Photo Credit of the downtown Irwin Isaly’s (my Isaly’s) to Brian Butko, author of Klondikes, Chipped Ham, & Skyscraper Cones: The Story of Isaly’s).

The Isaly Dairy Company, founded as a milk route in 1899 in Mansfield, Ohio had hundreds of Isaly’s stores throughout Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Isaly’sbecame famous for their Skyscraper ice cream cones, Klondike Bars and Isaly’s Original Chipped Chopped Ham. This Isaly’s, on Main Street in downtown Irwin was opened in 1945 by Art Lewis and was subsequently owned and operated by Richard Lewis, his son, from 1988 until it closed in 2006.


Late Night Rendezvous with Fish

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Thursday night, around 9:20 pm. Pittsburgh…

So I finished some mentoring business last night on the Northside, and I’m driving across the Allegheny over the Clemente Bridge. If you’re driving in this city, you’re regularly crossing a river or two. We’re in the City of Bridges.
I exit the Clemente right into the heart of downtown. Meandering through light traffic brings me into Market Square in just a few minutes. I make the half loop of the cobbled stone square and end up facing the Original Oyster House. My pulse qickens. Just a little.
Lit up in red neon and seemingly empty, it’s probably later than I think. They must be closed. But wait, just as I start moving closer to the bar, I see guy in a parka slipping in through the front door. Better yet, I notice there’s a parking space directly in front!
I park, look at my cell and see that it’s almost 9:30 pm. Getting out, quickly I look through the front window and see that there are no other customers inside. Just the one new customer walking to the bar and the young bartender waiting for him.
The parka guy is at the bar when I’m swing open the front door. Both faces turn and give me the once over. As I pull up a stool about five stools up from the other customer, I nod and give both gents a smile. The older black man in the parka with nightwatch cap nods back and turns to the bartender. Still smiling, he gives the bartender his order. I don’t catch it all, but I hear “bourbon and a beer.”
The bartender, walks up toward me where the liquor bottles are lined up at this storied Oyster bar and fish sandwich emporium.
I lean in forward and ask, “Is it too late to order a sandwich?”
“No sir.” he says smiling. “We don’t close until ten. Plenty of time.”
I smile back. The craving for the fried fish increases perceptively.
He lingers briefly.
“You need a menu?”
I give him a good look. He’s a 30 something guy who has a kind of Wilem Dafoe chiseled face. But longer. And more handsome. Short cropped light brown hair. Wearing an Oyster House black tee tucked into jeans. He’s lean, but has some muscle as most guys lifting kegs and cases of beer have in thse kinds of places.
“I’ll have the Monster fish.”
“Fries?”
“No, just the fish.”
“For Here or to go?”
“Here.”
“You know we’re cash only, right?”
“Sure.”
“Something to drink?”
“A ginger ale?”
“Okay…you got it”
He grabs a bottle of Bourbon from the shelf across from me by the register and a large shot glass. Pours it and moves back down toward the parka guy. Setting the shot in front of his customer, the bartender reaches under the counter and pulls out a beer. He uncaps it, places it gently on the stainless steel bar and says something quietly to his customer.
He places my order with someone in a kitchen out of sight and wanders back to me. He fills a glass with ice, and pours me a ginger ale from a fountain hose under the counter where.
He nods to me, smiles and heads back down to the parka guy who has downed his shot and is now sipping his beer from the bottle.
I use the opportunity to soak in my surroundings.

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I’ve never tired of this place in the 45 years since I first came in with my pop. We ordered the fish back then when pop first introduced the Giant Fried Fish Sandwich with hot sauce and hot vinegar to his first born.

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The place holds many memories. The unique decor itself owes a lot to the fourth owner, Louis Americus who was an ardent fan of the Miss America pagents andbrought back a photo every time he visited the contest in Atlantic City. Photos from the golden years of the pageant line the walls. The old yellowed Rocky Marciano poster across from me was there on that first visit. The Rock was my father’s favorite boxer, no matter who won or lost the title over the years. Pop schooled me well on Rocky.
My reverie is interrupted as my bartender is back placing the condiments in front of me. Hot pepper sauce, ketchup, tartar sauce, salt and pepper, some extra napkins.
I notice he hasn’t included the hot vinegar and I ask for it.

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He laughs. “Of course, the only one I forgot.” And grabs the bottle amber of colored magic and places it along side of my small army of flavor enhancers.
“Thanks.” I say smiling back.
The bartender, leans back against the opposite bar and folds his arms in front of him. He shakes his head, looks up at a basketball game playing on a big screen monitor at the far end of the bar, looks back to me and says,
“You know, I can’t get that song from the movie M.A.S.H. outta my head tonight. “Suicide is Painless.” You remember that?”

I pause for a second or two. The question, an attempt to engage me in conversation surprises me.
“Yeah, I DO remember the song.” I say.
I add, “And that scene in the movie…where the dentist doubts his sexuality…and thinks that suicide is his solution? That was great.”
The bartender laughs and looks down toward the end of the bar. Another guy wearing another black Oyster House tee, older and gray-haired with a small gray mustache is bringing a few big fish sandwiches out to the bar. He disappears as quick as he’s appeared. As the bartender moves down to retrieve the sandwiches, he turns back to me, stops and says, “I always thought the “Hot Lips” in the movie was hotter than, um…the “Hot Lips” on the TV show. Loretta Swit, right?”
“Yeah, Loretta Swit was on the tv show.” I say. “Who was the actress in the movie? I can picture her, but her name…?” I ask.
He’s too far away for me to add anything without shouting, so I take another sip of my ginger ale and watch him wrap up one sandwich and put it int a brown sack. The larger sandwich, mine I presume, is placed on a simple, flimsy paper plate. The fish sandwich takes up a lot of room.
Coming back up the bar , the bartender delivers the paper sack to my other bar mate with a few words. The guy in the parka pays for his order and takes another pull on his beer.
I hear the front door open behind me and turn to see another older black man, also in a parka, also wearing a night watch cap walking up to the bar beside me as my bartender drops off my fish sandwich.

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I turn to my sandwich take the top bun off and start dressing it.
Liberally sprinkling hot sauce on the bun so that it’s now a bright red, I flip the giant fish filet onto it an repeat the operation for the bottom of the bun.
Beside me the new customer is giving the bartender his order, but I’m not really listening. I’m deep in preparation mode. I next take the hot vinegar and liberally sprinkle that onto both sides of the fish. Part of the splendor of the Oyster House breading is that it stands up to the soaking of hot vinegar and still remains relatively crisp.
I tear off hunk of fish that lies outside the bun and pop it into my mouth. Oh my. It’s hot, both in spicy red pepper heat and in temperature…fresh out of the fryer to my plate.
I am in fish fry heaven. I tear off another bite, sip my ginger ale to clear my palate and with both hands dig into the sandwich itself. The cayenne soaked bun enhancing the hot fried fish with its legendary breading.
“How is it?” the bartender asks walking back up to me.
I guess he can read the ecstasy on my face.
“Great.” I say. My mouth full of fish and bun.
He smiles and nods knowingly at me.
After I swallow, I tell him that I remembered the name of the M.A.S.H. movie’s Hot Lips Houlihan.
“Sally Kellerman.”
“Yeah, yeah. That’s her.” he says.
And just like that we’re into a detailed conversation of the movie, a movie TV show comparison, Alan Alda, how the movie was darker that the weekly show, how good Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland were in the movie etc.
I’m a film and movie buff, but this young guy knows a lot. It’s an entertaining and enjoyable exchange.
“You know the owner of this place, Mr. Grippo? He was a Korean War. Pilot for the Marines.” the bartender says.
“No kidding?”
Another fish sandwich is delivered to the bar from a kitchen in the back somewhere, and the bartender is asking the last customer in whether or not he’d like hot sauce or tartar sauce or ketchup with it.
The other parka clad fellow is on his cell talking to someone and quickly hangs up to say, “Uh, just put them all in the bag with the sandwich. Don’t put anything ON the sandwich. Just put them in the bag WITH the sandwich.”
“Got it.” says the bartender and takes the man’s money, and makes change.
The second parka guy is standing next to me with his bag getting his change and says to me, “I gotta get this back to Forrest Hills. My baby was dying for a fish sandwich tonight.”
I understand completely and say, “You better get it back there quick then, while it’s still hot.”
“I do. I DO! Well, y’all have a good night.” And he’s waving to all three of us as he hurries out the door.
My bartender sees that my glass is nearly empty and he reaches under the bar for the ginger ale hose and tops me off.
“I guess I better be on my way too.” says the first parka guy and he gathers up his bag of food and heads toward the door.
“See ya next time.” says the bartender.
“Later, man.”

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Then it’s just me and the bartender as I’m finishing up the last of MY sandwich.
“Hey, you wanna see a picture Mr. Grippo when he was in Korea?”
“Sure!” I say.
“C’mon then.” he says.
I follow the bartender to the back end of thebar and he motions for me to come back on his side of the bar through a doorway that leads to an adjacent seating area, dark except for the night lights coming in the front windows and a few auxillary lights at the back of the room.
We make our way through the room manuevering through neatly arranged tables and chairs to one of the photo covered walls.
“My name’s Mark, by the way.” I say as we reach the spot on the wall with several photos of Mr. Grippo.
“Hey, Mark! I’m Jason.” he says smiling broadly. “Nice to meet you.”
We shake hands.
“Here’s that photo I wanted to show you.”
It’s a slightly blurry black and white, framed photograph of two young men in airmen jumpsuits sitting on the wing of what I think is a Grumman F9F.
“Wow. That’s pretty cool.” I say.
“I can’t believe Mr. Grippo was ever that young. Look at that hair!” he says as he points to one of the figures in the photo.
We talk a bit more about the Korean War (the bartender clearly far too young to have been born until well after the war ended). I’m impressed by what he knows. Impressed how knowledgeable, bright, and articulate he is.
When we make our way back over to the bar, I look at my cell and see that it’s a little after 10pm. The basketball game is still on at the far end of the bar, but it’s time for me to head home and let Jason close up and get home.
As we’re walking back, I mention that I’ve never been in the Oyster House with this few customers. Jason admits that this Thursday night has been pretty slow. I don’t tell him that I have really enjoyed being here almost by myself.
I take a few last gulps of my ginger ale and tell Jason that I better get going. I thank him again, tell him it was nice to meet him and leave a tip next to my empty paper plate and ginger ale.
He picks up the bills and thanks me. As I’m heading toward the door.
he adds “I enjoyed talking with you. Thanks for stopping by.”
Once outside I turn and look in through the front windows again before getting into my car. Jason is gathering the condiments off the bar, my glass and wiping down the bar where I was sitting.
The Oyster House always leaves me feeling happily satiated, and grateful. The ambiance, the food, the smells. Everything about the place touches me in ways hard to express. The Miss America photos, the giant yellowed Rocky Marciano poster. The white tiled walls and the hex-tiled floor. So much history in this place. And memories.
Turning the ignition it all hits me like a warm hug. Then I realize I could eat another fish sandwich. Right now.

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(this last photo is a shot of the Oyster House in 1930)

PIX 2016 – Bill Griffith

 

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Meeting Bill Griffith at PIX 2016

The creator of Zippy the Pinhead comes to Pittsburgh!

On Saturday, April 2, 2016 at PIX  2016 I was just a flat out fan boy. It was a thrill to be able to talk at length with the immensely talented, one of a kind cartoonist and storyteller Bill Griffith. We also had the opportunity to exchange war stories about the glory years working for Tina Brown’s New Yorker, and our questionable relevance at today’s Cons.
If you’ve not met Bill in person, he is a charming man, and very likable…and prolific as hell.
Don’t miss the opportunity to pick up his new graphic novel memoire titled INVISIBLE INK. It’s a wonderful read told with wit, candor and humor. I got my copy signed at PIX so I’m in heaven!
Thanks for your graciousness and conversation, Bill.

p.s. That Zippy strip in Bill’s hands is one that my wife and I proudly own. It features Zippy in “Scotty’s Diner” in Wilkinsburg after it had become “Charlie’s”.
Bill personalized it for me.

 


Wiener Water Takes PIX 2015 by storm!

11081203_10152905936789888_7089267747527541030_n Wiener Water makes its debut at Pittsburgh’s Independent Comic Expo 2015. Almost a dozen copies were sold!* PIX 2015 was a little diappointing this year. Not sure why, but a lot of vendors, and comics creators were also disappointed.

*I was underwhelmed with the response at THIS year’s PIX.