Slab - Portland, ME

Oh Slab, your Sicilian-style “Hand Slab” is formidable. For this beautiful and delectable addition to the pantheon of things-we-Portlanders-want-to-eat we must thank Stephen Lanzalotta and his pizza-ing skills.


No, we cannot simply thank chef Stephen. We must also thank the robust cooks of Sicily, through whose rugged individualism this fusion of Italian and Arabic flavors was born.


But that is not enough. Let’s go back to around 997 AD and thank the first chef — contested though his/her identity may be — to put tomato and cheese on bread and call their creation a “pizza.”


But then, why not just thank the first person, nearly 28,000 years back, to mix ground cereal grain with water and forget it on a particularly hot boulder, inadvertently creating the world’s first flat bread? Without the knowledge that grain could be eaten, and preserved, in such a portable, tasty way, there’s little chance the farming revolution could have ever taken root (as it were).


Actually, it might make more sense to go forward a bit and thank the Sumerian farmers of Mesopotamia back around 3100 B.C. who discovered that diverting streams to rain-starved portions of land tempered the soil, creating irrigation as we know it. We raise our pizzas in thanks to these early hydroscientists for irrigating modern civilization to more reliable and bountiful crop yields. Thus making grain and tomato and basil — the essential building blocks of pizza — available to everyone.


And if we’re thanking irrigation we should probably also thank the nameless Egyptian handy-man brilliant enough to create the Ard: early civilization’s proto-plough. Without that first beast-drawn wedge, we couldn’t till rocky soil nor make seed drills in any significant number or consistency. Thanks, Ard, for blowing the doors off farming by creating an easy and tremendously effective system to replace what had previously been the uncoordinated labors of malnourished, hob-footed, stick-wielding peasants.


Well, that actually leads us to thanking the first hominins, 30,000 years ago for thinking up the idea of using durable tools at all. Their manufacture of stone implements, like knives and hammers — rather than just disposable sticks and rocks and bones — ushered us into the modern age.


That being the case, we must also give a nod and wink to the first chimpanzee ever to pick up a twig and think, “hmm, I can use this to ‘fish’ for termites!” That little simian’s ingenuity was a watershed moment in mammal tool-use for certain.


In reality we should just thank primitive autonomization of the first carpometacarpal joint — otherwise known as the development of the thumb — which existed 70 million years ago in early primates. Without that thumb, we’ve got no tool-use. So thanks thumbs. Good on you.


Rather, let’s not thank thumbs. Let’s thank the first amniotes to crawl onto land and lay their eggs. Without their ingenious breeding tactics — namely, being the first mammal with the ability to lay eggs on dry land rather than in water — they staked our mammalian claim to dry land itself, allowing for all the glorious rest to unfold.


Yet, while we’re thanking amniotes we might as well salute prokaryotes, the single-celled grand pappy/mammy to every consciousness walking, squawking, swimming, hopping, digging, slithering or straight photosynthesizing on earth. If our prokaryotic parents hadn’t survived (and flourished) during the shelling of earth by asteroids 3.6 billion years ago, there’s no way we’d be sippin’ ‘Gansetts in the shade of Slab’s outdoor seating area.


In actuality we probably should thank the early atmosphere, consisting of mainly nitrogen, carbon dioxide and inert gases (and some hydrogen left over from the solar nebula which was pretty much just a bunch of dust left over from the sun’s formation) that created the necessary conditions for life to form, by giving us water almost 3.8 billion years ago.


Really, though, we have to thank the sacrifice of early stars that went supernova, exploding and expelling vast clouds of gas, dust and radiation at up to 30,000 K/per second. It was this star material — molecules heavier than iron — that mixed with elements from the Big Bang itself — like hydrogen, helium and traces of lithium — that managed to find its way into the gravitational thrall of our precious yellow dwarf star we call The Sun, and, with the power of gravity, swirl itself into a nearly perfect sphere upon which every single living being — that we have ever known — has lived their life; a small rock that found itself the optimal distance from a source of heat in its randomly generated orbit whose gyrations still allow for hospitable growth and love and livelihoods and existence as we know it, this lovely, confusing, hallowed, fragile, crowded, lonely, miraculous place we call Earth.


Thanks stars. Thanks for giving us the Hand Slab.





4.0 Stars

There are quite a few menu items that delight, but the Hand Slab (spiritual and physical successor to Micucci’s Sicilian Pizza) is a delicious, and nearly unrivaled, piece of pizza.


Hit and Miss

The Hand Slab is wonderfully priced. You certainly get bang for your buck in that delicious, puffy, fall-apart brick of pie. The rest of the menu is solid, taste-wise, but I’ve seen a couple dishes that are more expensive (by double in some cases) that serve up less actual food than the Handel’s Mcslabberson. It’s up to you what you’re in the mood for, but don’t let a higher price convince you that you’ll be getting a massively larger helping of food.


Outdoor Sweeting

The indoor area has a cool vibe with poured concrete and a two-tiered layout. However, the outdoor area, smothered in orange, authentic German Bier Hall style tables is the place to be. As the weather turns to winter, outdoors won’t be an option. But during the summer and what little is left of our fall, there are few places more pleasant to crush a slab.


Hard Knocks

The servers are generally nice and prompt. Indeed I’ve had some great experiences. But twice of my five times to Slab, I’ve had underwhelming outcomes. Once, when I was alone, it took me about fifteen solid minutes to get visited by a server. After that initial wait it was a generally well-paced service experience. The second occasion was with some buds and one of our cohort had no U.S. identification, just his “I’m from Somewhere in Europe” I.D. card. He was not allowed to buy beer. Now, there was no question he was over 21, in fact he looks about double that age. And I (we) understand that Slab has regulations on which cards they can take or not take. Ultimately it’s a judgment call on staying completely safe (from a regulation standpoint, in case an inspector were somehow present), or keeping your previously-happy customers happy. By choosing the former, Slab earned the dubious company of Binga’s Stadium as the only other place in Portland to not accept that “I’m from Somewhere in Europe” I.D. card. With that last experience, Slab, unfortunately, lost a couple customers.



That unfortunate event withstanding, I will still eat at Slab. The Hand Slab is just that tasty. And I know Slab doesn’t necessarily need my patronage, nor that of my friends, since business looks to be in business. However, what was once an immaculately excellent place to go now has a blemish, which, unfortunately, will not soon fade.





Salvage BBQ - Portland, ME

We strolled down to the harbor where the waves met the scrubby shore. My sister had her gun. I had my sword.

           The rising sun had not yet breached the horizon — across the bay the burnt outline of Tisbury shown black against the sky’s cold violet glow. My sword clacked in its sheath against my off-white shirt. Once, it had been black.

           “Smoke?” she asked me. I declined.

           We waited.

           Seagulls scuffled beside us on the slipshod arena of a sunken roof. They extended their wings and opened their beaks, plunging in, puffing up. One with a hurt leg slid on the outskirts of the fight, clucking its impotent wrath. My sister casually puffed her hand-rolled cigarette. We had both been here so many times before.

            One dies or both die. It’s the only rule that cannot be broken. The only rule keeps order. One of two truths I believe.

            We were family now in these final moments. Brother and sister in death. She looked over to me and opened her mouth to ask a question, but was cut short by an electric crackle, the speakers coming to life.

            Alert now, our sun-tightened skin prickling. Sirens cried out, caroming off the sea and wave-wrecked shacks that lined the harbor. We rose and drew our lines in the soaked sand.

            I didn’t need to know her story to know it as dearly as the blade in my hand. All our stories were the same. We all killed to survive.

            “Nice sword,” she said from her spot twenty yards down the beach. “Just like the Duelist.”

            But for a tight hint of a grin, I didn’t respond. She let her sun-bleached dreadlocks fall over her face before whipping them back up and over her head and knotting them with a shoelace. She had on loose-fitting cargo pants, threadbare, ripped and stained and a soiled green tank top. Her sun-brown skin was run through with minute wrinkles. She couldn’t have been more than thirty; a killer since childhood.

            “Never paired on the beach,” she said, marveling at the beauty surrounding us. It was foolish talk. Advantages were scarce enough. Everyone left had survived so many pairings.

            A wall of sunlight crept down the treetops. The sixth beep rang out. At ten, our fight would commence.

“The silent man in black.” She said. “No scars on his body. The most duels won. No equal. You will know him by his red blade. He is called the Duelist.” She laughed and shook her head, gun at the ready. “You’re him, right?”

            This was the second truth. I am the Duelist.

            She dug her feet laterally in the sand, testing for purchase, smiling. “You know he’s just a myth,” she said. I said nothing.

            She was wrong.

            My legend had grown so long that many tried to pretend they were me. They wore their black jackets or shirts or shawls. They carried their katanas easily and said not a word. They concealed their scars with makeup. This was why my sister was not afraid.

            “Alright, Duelist,” she said. “Why not put your skills to ending this brutality: these pairings. Let’s stop this madness.”

            Her fighting strategy was pitifully formulaic. Distract your opponent with talk. Score the early kill. I nestled my fingers into the grooves of my Katana’s grip. The tenth beep’s echo faded. Silence struck. The pairing began.

            We circled each other, she felt out the ground. My footsteps fell into their comfortable rhythm.  It was like listening to a song for the ten thousandth time. Every beat in its place. Every note falling as it should.

            “You know,” she said, concern in her voice. “You know this whole thing is bull… This whole situation. Making us fight. I think—”

            Her first shot sent the gulls scattering. I bobbed a-rhythmically and the bullet nestled into the sand far behind me. Having failed in her first gambit, she would launch into how she was part of a group. How her people had the arms and will to confront the power that had mandated this new way of life.

            “I’m part of a group that can change this,” said my sister. “It’s a small group, but we have big ideas… Why don’t you talk?” she said. Her body quivered now with fear’s adrenaline. She had begun to understand. “Why don’t you talk?”

            Why don’t I talk? There are no answers in talk. The only answers that matter are those that you yourself create. The rules you hold yourself to. Everything outside of that relies on proof. Proof of this, proof of that. Even the proof itself requires further proof on and on down. There are no absolutes other than those whose source you know. Your truth.

            My truths are two: I am the Duelist who never loses and one of us must die.

            I continued to sway and bob as heat crept into the sand and into our clothes. Sweat twinkled on the fringes of my sister’s forehead.

            I pulled my sword free of its scabbard and raised it vertically above my head. Its red blade dripped with sunlight. Her hands fell to her sides, fear blossoming on her face.

            This was the chorus before the final refrain. One after the other they would talk or plead or stay silent. When they saw my blade, when they understood its hue. When the rhymes that haunt the dreams of all but me creep into their head, unbidden:


The Duelist in black,

No scars to track,

His blade is red,

All words unsaid.


            She would fight now. She would put in everything available to her. The song would continue, nothing could be rushed, nothing could be hurried.

            “Say something, brother,” she said. The sweet smell of wildflowers sprung from the gorse beside the beach’s edge. I could see her frantic heart in the ropy veins of her neck. She stumbled on a rock and opened fire. The sand around me exploded in angry burrs of rock and shell. She was screaming, my sister. Most do.

            I slid toward her, eyes closed. Bullets hummed past and around me as lazy as bumblebees. She had seven, six, five left. Now four. Now three. At two she would wait. She would let me get close and fire at the last minute. My song was nearing its beautiful coda. When my blade would prove my truths: I am the Duelist, one has to die.

            Gulls cried from the jetty and the ocean calmly lapped at the shrinking shore. I swayed through the sand, closing the gap between my sister and her end. Another year, my purpose again fulfilled.

            When I was close enough to smell her — that faint, burnt stink we all carry — she fired her last two bullets. I ducked as they neatly whispered past. I opened my eyes. She was smiling. She should not have been smiling.

            In a blur I could hardly see, she reloaded. The first bullet knocked my sword from my hand. The second slammed into my thigh. I sat down and gasped. How?

            My sister hit my face with the butt of her gun. I blacked out.


I awoke trussed in sea grass. My sister sat next to me, looking out at the quavering reflection of the opposite shore. Behind us the sun had just begun to set. Her guns lay at her feet.

           “The Duelist doesn’t speak. The Duelist never loses?” I looked up at her. She spoke at the water. “And he never left a man alive?”

            Why was she toying with me? Kill me. One had to die.

            She looked at my manacled hands and legs. “Do you also believe that we have to do this? That someone will come kill us if we don’t?” She shook her head and stood up. “Look around. Look at this place.” I scanned the darkling shore. Shells of burnt homes, soot, grime. People listed to and fro, bent under unseen weight.

           “Who is in charge of this?” my sister asked.

            She dropped her gun in the lazy surf, as casually as you’d toss a broken shell. I needed to die. One must die or both die.

            My sister left me on the beach by way of an overgrown path that led back to town. My blade lay down the beach in the sand.

            It was deep night before I managed to cut loose my bonds. No sirens had accompanied my sister’s escape. No helicopter blades had snapped into view. She had not killed. Two had not died. I was not the Duelist. There is no truth.



4.0 Stars

I walked into Salvage thinking yeah sure cool another BBQ joint in Portland. I walked out of Salvage thinking mother of god.


is Right

The meal itself will probably run you in the ~$20 range if you’re getting BBQ, Sides and some drinks. The price, however, matches the fare to a T. This is well-respected meat.


Summer Camp Grub Hall

Spacious but not cavernous. There are quite a few seats, both at tables and at the bar. Feels appropriate to stuff your face within these environs.


Nearly Superfluous

Order BBQ. Order beer. Get beer. Sit down. Get BBQ. VOUS MANGEZ.



Before visiting, I had certain notions of what I thought Salvage was going to be. I envisioned dry-ish barbecue smothered in so-so sauce and ho-hum sides. I don’t know why that was in my mind, but it was. Those notions were wrong. Salvage is legitimate BBQ. Smoked to perfection. Every meat-made item is succulent, fall-apart BBQ goodness. Cap that with quality sauces and sides. If you find yourself in Portland, in need of a smoked meat fix, get on down then they-a to Salvage.





Burger King - Allston, MA

Thanks for the inquiry, Ashleigh. An ask like this hasn’t appeared on the docket before and we’re diving deep to source some answers. We think there’s a real growth opportunity here.


Now, this request is information-rich, so let’s unpack it and try to dig down to a best case solve. Correct us if we’re wrong, but you’re saying ”You don’t want to date anymore?”


To begin, let us reassure you that we at Chris Corp. aren’t just going to throw in the towel. We believe there’s an opportunity here to plant and deliver something robust. See, this organization started in an old town. One with traditional values like trust, compassion, and progress. Values that really matter. And we’ve built that into our brand ethos so that consumers, like you, know what they’re going to receive: quality. Now, Ashleigh, it sounds like your experience so far has been different.


We here at Chris Corp. couldn’t be more disheartened by your disappointment in our boyfriend services. We’ve been a recognized leader in market excellence for eight quarters running, so this really comes as a shock. We want to make good, Ashleigh. We really do.


First, this claim that we “cheated on you.” That just can’t be correct. Let’s look at the numbers. We’ve been running a 5% surplus in free time. Now compare that to our direct competition: Bryan Corp: 8% surplus, Nate Corp: 14% surplus, and Ned Corp, he’s been running at 28% surplus in free time for the past seventeen quarters. So what you’re saying is that somehow, despite this vast discrepancy of averages, year over year, despite the fact that we have been below almost every other industry leader in free-time accumulation, we cheated. We think the numbers tell a convincing story here Ashleigh.


We here at Chris Corp. are dedicated to leveraging truly brand-winning solutions. So, you can’t just run the meter with back-burner concepts like cheating. Time, in this industry, Ashleigh, is not just money, it’s also time.


And these onerous regulations: text you once in a while, explain that butt dial in which you heard sexual moaning, this ongoing inquiry into “who is Halley?” These are just really stifling innovation. They’re limiting the potential of this corporation. The last thing we need are more barriers to growth. The market works, Ashleigh. Trust us.


We’ll let you in on a little secret, we’ve been accelerating a new program that’s going to be a world-class play in capturing new resources. By Q4 2014, Chris Corp. is expected to be a cashier at Home Depot. If that pans out, by 2016, Chris Corp. will be a paint section supervisor, and by 2018, as a potential floor manager, we’ll be able to an ensure a near tripling of our net asset value per share. In short, Chris Corp. is a company on the move.


In addition, if you’re concerned about your short-term options, we’ve initiated a groundbreaking new architecture and framework called the “Ikea Expedit TV Stand” operation that we think you’ll be really pleased with. This is a market offering that we had not looked at before but now appears that the opportunity to deliver positive ROI has gotten a lot stronger. And after both qualitative and quantitative testing in partnership with Chris’ Mom Corp, we think this TV stand is very viable and has a chance to go viral from day one. We need to double-check you’re on board, Ashleigh. We don’t want a non-starter of a partnership leading to an unexpected dip below projected sexual intercourse for the whole of 2015. That would really upset the board.


Let’s step back and look at the supply chain. There’s Chris Corp. and there’s you: that’s about it. That’s not as many vendors as most young men in the marketplace usually interface with. Meaning, we’ve been taking the hit here, Ashleigh.


When you also look at the stats: Chris Corp. has been offering competitive advantages, despite kinks and hiccups in payment — let’s not even bring up the quarter-long renege on our “BJ’s and HJ’s Agreement” — yet we still have: Monday, dinner at Chili’s, Tuesday, a movie, Thursday, dinner again at Chili’s. All at the expense of Chris corp. See, Ashleigh, this is providing best of class content through market penetration and value despite underperformance from certain sectors.


As to your comment on the unsuitable physical layout of Chris Corp.’s structure, let us reassure you that we have already been leveraging both light jogs and measured trips to Planet Fitness to rectify this disparity. That’s just not something most organizations do. See, we’re committed to making change here at Chris Corp. Real change.


In response to the remaining sundry concerns you’ve expressed, we think we can sum these up succinctly. What we here at Chris Corp. think is vital to good business is deploying capital to weak sectors, as needed, on a case by case basis. We have to make hard calls and some investments just aren’t tenable in today’s shaky market. Things like: getting a dog, buying jewelry, expensive wine. What we need are solid investments to boost capital: things like a bigger TV for Chris Corp.’s apartment. We’ve been running lean for a long time and our executives deserve rewards for keeping this corporation viable. That’s a solid investment that we believe in strongly.


This relationship is an asset, Ashleigh, we believe its growth potential is huge. What we don’t want to do is turn it into a liability. If we break up now, we might see each other around town, you might tell other potential investors about certain particularities of our company such as the halitosis we’re dealing with, or our inability to stomach any ethnic food. This could be a huge blow to Chris Corp’s bottom line. And that’s the last thing we both want.


Well what can we do to retain you? OK, how about this. Right now you’re locked into the boyfriend package plus benefits with the option, upon reaching certain goals and milestones, to becoming a fiancé. What would you say if we erased those milestones? What would you say if we upgraded your package, completely gratis, to fiancé with a 79.5% chance of marriage. This is the best option available. You can look at Dave Corp., Bobby Corp., even Ken Corp. They can’t come close.




How about this? What it seems we need is to deep dive into some blue ocean innovation in this relationship. There is no box anymore Ashleigh. What we have here is pure market-lifting, head-turning, benchmark-making, rising-sea-lifting-all-ships potential that requires forward-looking, lateral thinking and you just walked out and slammed the door.


We’re going to need to re-allocate investments to scentless moisturizer, stat.




3.2 When you start. 1.5 when you’re finished.

If one were to compliment Burger King truthfully, one could only say “a chain-broiled burger never tasted so consistent.” You want food fast? You got fast food. Happy day. Hand someone with more than one job your money. Don’t worry, you’re only supporting them indirectly, you’re actually supporting, at most, the franchisee and at moster an enclave of men and women who care deeply about the Grammys.


Your Way

A breakfast/lunch/dinner that will slowly undo you for around $8.00. I know, a lot of other meals contain the same amount of fat and calories, but there is no way to get food this consistent without preservatives and other shenanigans. I’m going to hand fast food, as we know it, about 85 years before we look at it the same way we look at how renaissance peasants would sniff mint to ward off sickness and then drink water that dead people had been floating in.


Burger King™

Have you been in a Burger King? This one also looked like a Burger King. Haven’t ever been to a Burger King? Go to a Burger King.


Minimum Happiness

Not saying that the people themselves are sad. Service is normally about as invigorating as it can get when your order is a number and a size. Simply, pertaining to happiness, one of the least fulfilling jobs I can imagine is taking money from people who you are literally hastening to their untimely death.



So, here’s the thing. Burger King is a fast food chain that actually makes money serving people “full meals” for $8.00-ish dollars. That is a true feat of economics that surely can’t last. Certainly, the food needs to satisfy you in order for you to buy it but this is simply a trick of laboratory work and limitless blind taste tests. I've eaten at Burger King. I’m sure you have too. In the short run, if you have a burger or chicken sandwich there now and again — when you’re on the road most likely — you can’t help that. It’s fast, it’s convenient, it’s Burger King. However, with the way current trends are going, there’s no way this sort of food-mercenary business can last. With the large shift toward "organic" and "sustainable," the honest truth is that the Burger King we know is not long for this world. Food is (for us First Worlders) getting better, and simply hitting all the right flavor benchmarks is probably not going to cut it in 2079 when we know the name of the cow whose milk was used to make this particular slice of Kraft American Cheese. The point of all this being, Burger King, as it lives and optimizes today, will not be around for the long haul. So get your sanitized, homogenized, advertised, standardized protein, sugar, carbohydrate and saturated fat fix while the getting’s good. Either that or this is exactly the way all food is going, in which case, don’t look for me, I’ll be with my lovebot on Mars.


Boda - Portland, ME

As Philip, my brother, spoke I sipped a beer. I’d agreed to meet him for a drink over lunch.

            “You think about your body,” he was saying. “It’s like this huge cruise ship. And every organ is like a different mate on the ship, each with their own specific purpose, or role.”

            I nodded at him and slugged back the rest of my Singha. I was really getting into it. It felt solid.

            “And in those jobs your organs are, like, perfect little sailors.” He shuffled his short arms forward and back in a pantomime of swabbing a deck. I nodded.

            The beer had that affect on me; made me more amenable to agreement. Plus, nodding was fun. Not like I’m normally too strong-willed, but these beers had me bobbing like one of those dashboard turtles.

            “Each job is really difficult and specific, like the fact that my intestines break down food sequentially and completely and how your liver over there diligently filters beer through complex, automatic processes so that you can just sit there and nod at me.”

            I nodded.

            “So you imagine all these myriad singing, swabbing, synched up, HMS Pinafore-style organs just keeping this cruise ship running in immaculate shape, but at the helm is the brain: you.”

            I put two fingers up at the server to just bring two more out. She had straight, white bangs and gave me a look that said I will do this but this seems to be rapidly going south and I hope I don’t soon regret complying with your abnormal drinking pace.

            Philip’s mouth became a thin line while I ordered. “Go on,” I said. The beers had started to sink into my muscles, creep into my brain. Philip had put on a nice shirt to meet me, an off-white short-sleeved button down with faint paisley relief. He’d gained a little more weight though. Poor guy.

            “You think of the crazy shit this captain makes this perfect machine do. This insanely priceless ship, the almost uncountable number of mates, organs, even microbes and bacteria(!) all doing their job but this nutty-ass captain in control of it all: your brain!”

            The waitress brought my drinks over and raised an eyebrow at Philip as she did. I handed her my empty couple of bottles and flashed a winning smile, which made me drool a little bit on myself. I don’t know if she noticed.

            “So, like, you and your brain choose to do some wild-ass thing like, for example, like eat two bags of All-Dressed Humpy Dumpty chips. Your mind is like “Let’s do it boys!” and all the organ mates — all those hundreds of perfect sailors just trying to do their jobs — are like “Not again! This goddamn crazy-ass captain!”

            I nodded at him. I wasn’t so much agreeing any more than just watching his mouth form words. The Zohydro I’d dropped before I got here was kicking in majorly. The wooden seat felt like it was heated and pretty much form fit to my back and ass. Super comfortable. I just kept nodding and Philip kept going.

            “Like, every time you or I walk into a bar, the captain in your head is like ‘Woo hoo! Let the good times roll!’ But inside your body the entire crew is just like ‘Noooooooo! Turn around Captain! Turn around!’”

            The beers were gone again and we hadn’t even gotten our entrees. Philip was the one paying so it was all good about the beer prices. And it was my day off so I was allowed a little fun. Plus I’d chosen to drink Singha, which is the cheapest on the menu at least. I’m not that much of a jerk.

            “But in so many more ways than one is your brain just messing with the rest of you. Your muscles want to work but your brain is like, eh this couch is pretty sweet. Your body wants to feel good and get a variety of food, like greens and things, and your brain is like, ‘It’s BBQ time!’ Just some sociopathic captain up there making the most destructive decisions.”

            I was becoming rapidly messed up and could only muster the occasional head bob. I just hoped my eyes weren’t drooping too far down but then again kinda just thinking “fuck it” if they were. This was where I’d wanted to be all day, just riding out the moment in a giant, warm pillow of messed-up-ness.

            Even through my haze I could see Philip didn’t want to meet me just to talk about captains and organs. “But the reason I wanted to grab food,” Philip said, getting around to it. “The reason I kinda came out here was to talk about what me and Mom and Dad are really seeing as a problem. We’re worried about…” Philip tapped the side of his forehead with the knuckle of his forefinger. I was really starting to zone in on the details. The way he knocked right there, just two little raps so that I could hear the bones of his finger and skull make a muffled clock clock despite the cushion of both the skin and muscle covering his little, crooked piggy of a finger and ovular, red-speckled forehead. So weird that that noise is literally him knocking his bones against each other. And clapping? Hitting our skin against our skin to make a slapping noise of approval? What a messed up concept.

            Philip gets on his phone and diddles around. I’m just floating on an umbilical cloud, feeling my body heavy and still and weightless around me. The waitress put our food down and I just kinda stared at it.

But then, out comes my Mom from the doorway. And Dad. And even my wife, Caroline, comes in holding our little baby Brandon, who is asleep in his turquoise bassinet. They all pull up chairs around the table. I want to just be like “peace out” and get up, but my body is so heavy that I just tectonically rove my eyes without even moving my neck.

I try to get the waitress’ attention with my eyes to order a couple more beers but that’s not really going to happen since my whole family is blocking my eye-line to her. They all wear the same mask of pleading concern.

I try to pre-empt all their bullshit and say I’m fine, but end up kind of awping my mouth open like a fish and making an inaudible vowel.  At about that point the Quaaludes — I’d gotten them from some angular guy who called them Mandrakes — I’d taken when I was in the bathroom earlier were kicking in and soldering my ass to the chair. It sucks when drugs kick in right as your parents show up. So, in the end I tried to listen to my dad as he talked and my family looked from him to me, and me to him and him to me etc.

The part that was too bad about it all was that they thought this might work. That this mutual love and familial caring could have any bit of an effect on what my body wanted to do. They thought they could stop me? I couldn’t stop me.

As they talked and choked up I tried to listen but ended up zoning back to what Philip had been saying about my crazy captain brain. At this point I don’t think my captain brain was actually in control. I think the ship was in full mutiny — had been for a while now — every one of my organs now actively driving me to do what I was doing. Like they were tired of this whole ill-fated pleasure cruise and had decided that they would become the agents of its swiftest destruction. My stomach saying, “more beer please.” My lungs saying “more smoke please.” My appendix, a stranger, chiming in, “Hey, how about another ‘lude?” My brain a captive to the visceral command of my organs, trying hard to wrestle back control without success, like running in a dream.

When I zoned back in Philip and my Dad were talking to each other and my Mom was holding Caroline’s head in her lap and Caroline’s auburn hair had fallen down over my Mom’s knees in a silken, shimmering waterfall that made we want to just about die.





Certainly the classiest Thai food available in Portland. Intriguing preparations and some killer dishes — pad thai swaddled in an omelette, addictive house-fried peanuts, and multiple tapas options. It’s tasty for certain.



It can get a little expensive a little quickly. Think, in the $30 range for one person with app, entrée and a drank. HOWEVER, if you hit up their late night menu, which is short but very well-curated, the value skyrockets (late night menu starts at 10:00 and goes to 12:45)


Maybe Thai?

With lots of varnished wood and a fun bar to sit at, it’s nice in Boda. I couldn’t really tell you what they were going for beyond, um, a “dark, woody cove.” It works.



The outward-facing service staff is always nice, but — for whatever reason — the food can take a little bit. Your water may go unfilled from time to time, but overall it’s good stuff.



If you've got a mean Thai-hanker, get over there. If you want a good late night Pad Thai, there is no better. But if you’re just looking for a little night out dinner, nothing fancy, it’ll end up costing slightly more than some other options that will most likely lend you a significant modicum more satisfaction.

Becky's Diner - Portland, ME

What grand bravery to follow a dream. What eclipsing courage to plunge into the personal unknown — facing ruin and failure — in pursuit of self-actuated glory.


The elegant denial of rationalism required to truly believe in yourself: the person with whose weaknesses you know, the person whose fear is yours, the person with whose every failure you are most intimate.


How can you trust that person with your fragile dream?


Because you must.


Failure, in the face of your impossible pursuit, is almost assured.  But how much sweeter the life that strives and falls short than one that never dares; how uncomfortable the final rest of one who feared to try.


Life itself is struggle; it is inescapably true. We must embrace the struggle, exalt the struggle, place the struggle upon a pedestal higher than man and woman and beast, for it is the unifying code and very subatomic structure of life. Without struggle there is no victory, no relief, no poignancy.


We want the end of our desire: one final act that satiates us permanently. And that is precisely what we will never have. We are our desire until we die. And so to love desire itself, that is the meaning. That is this life’s purpose.


Everything, especially us, must eventually disappear. What more pure is there then, than a transient dream and the brief, lively struggle for its achievement? To live only for the achievement of a goal is to live in brief flashes. To live in the singular moment of effort is to live constantly.


Nothing we own will stay ours forever, except our action.


As always this sentiment — the dream, the goal — can be perverted to the accomplishment of wicked ends. We cannot know if our goals are good or bad. Each of us is a saint to one person and a monster to another. The points of view are too many. People will dream what they dream and do what they will do. We can only hope that we do no evil. The evil rarely think they are.


We must cast this doubt from our minds and struggle all the same.


And what to one is simply getting out of bed is to another a triumph of the highest order. The ease with which the first man rises should in no way diminish the power of the accomplishment for the other. A single victory to one man is as valuable as remaining undefeated to another. The very laws of the universe mandate that everything is relative, thus, so are our accomplishments. So are we.


The dream does not need to be tangible; happiness is also a dream. Working toward happiness in the face of a difficult job and troubles with money and envy of neighbors is a goal on the same plane of kings and Gods. Every life’s struggle is worthy of being etched into stone and displayed for all posterity.


And what if we achieve our dream? Nothing short of a miracle.


But the satisfaction cannot last. For who has not succeeded, only to think, I want to succeed again? The hunger for more success, for the next victory, the next dream, is almost inescapable. Victory is temporal. The hunger lasts forever.


Becky Rand’s ambition was to create a diner where people could go early and late, for homemade food of the best ingredients for a fair price. Her dream was Becky’s Diner and her dream is a reality. Her effort has borne impossible fruit. And she has found purpose, found life, in the struggle to keep her dream a reality on Hobson Warf — to save it from slipping prematurely into the past.


Her success is irrefutable. Perfect. That is what we can applaud. The realization of her dream and the effort to keep it thus, are all we can truly judge. To compare her diner, her dream, to another — the thing I do so readily — is, in this context, profane. Becky’s — and every other restaurant and diner and establishment like it — is a monument to triumph over the totality of human strife.


To Becky’s we can turn for hope, for joy, for sun-dappled dreams. Let it stand as a temporal testament to the beauty of sweat, the staggering profundity of effort, the unmitigated joy of hope. Let Becky’s stand for all our dreams.


Good for Becky. Good for us.




3.0 Stars

This review was inspired by the fact that, while Becky’s may not be my favorite diner, it is a staggering accomplishment for someone to even start a diner, let alone keep it successfully running. So, if you’re looking for diner food, diner food is what you’ll get. Good, solid stuff.


Old Timey

Seriously, the price is the jam. $8 omelets, $5 eggs, you know the drill. Big portions, little prices all made with ingredients you’d keep in your own kitchen.



Maps of Maine on the walls, booths on the outside, counter on the inside surrounded by stainless steel stools with red pleather tops. Feels as though, statistically, at least one family is having their “Annual Becky’s Meal” at all times.



Becky’s servers get up early, as in, the time I go to bed early. And they serve with a smile. Great people and good service.



If you want a diner diner, Becky’s is it. Artisanal crepes and cappuccinos this is not. It is, however, skilled at what it does for a price that puts a smile on your face.


Blue Rooster Food Co - Portland, ME

Looking through the verdant swaying foliage from the panoramic window in my bedroom, I almost convinced myself I didn’t have any animal hybrids at all — as if it were just solitary me in the midst of wild ocean on a tropical haven of solitude.

            Peering from under the sheets of my egg-shaped water bed, I realized that the previous night was one of the first good sleeps I’d had since the whole electrified wolfverine escape. I felt good. It’s interesting, when you forget what it feels like to just feel good, to not feel put-upon and heavy with problems that you can’t directly solve. This island, BloodSpew Cove — my island — is kind of a handful.

            The electrified wolfverine mishap was basically just a miscalculation on my part. Who knew they would be strong enough to gnaw through their steel enclosure’s bars? After devouring Ken Klatch, a really nice lackey, they absconded to the wilds where they’re now vigorously procreating. Looking on the bright side though, having giant, vicious, electrified quadrupeds isn’t the worst form of security against would-be snoopers.

            Unfortunately, I can’t spin the Tasmanian Marlin Man imbroglio. The three maimed interns aren’t going to dole out very good reviews after that one.

            To make matters worse Gloria Languardo, my unflappable assistant, was worried by this week’s gen-mod forum presentation in which I unveiled the SARS AIDS Cheetah.

            “What, exactly,” she said, “is the benefit of the fastest land-mammal imbued with both SARS and AIDS?” Well, she stumped me with that one. I was just thinking, check out this badass cheetah, y’know? Needless to say I tabled that project along with the invisible sentient Alzheimer’s cloud.

            I’m not all blunders thought. I mean, yeah, my Dad, Dr. Inferno, gave me this island. I named it BloodSpew Cove. The whole idea of filling it with heinous genetic mutant abominations was purely my initiative. I realize that the idea wasn’t anything particularly new — yeah yeah Dr. Moreau got there first — but I still brought it all to life.

            The actual problem — besides all these little mishaps — is that the third annual board meeting was coming up and all the investors would be here in a week. That means Professor Knife, Bill Hates, Señor Deathface, The Gay Phantom and the head of the board, my father, Dr. Inferno.

            This is the problem with our capitalist shackles; it allows no room for blue sky innovation! True progress — not to mention the entire structure of scientific inquiry — requires you to chuck a couple concepts against the wall and see what sticks! But nooooo, you have to be saleable, scalable, profitable and marketable from day one. No grace period, no try it out period! No, hey maybe in retrospect that radioactive crow-bear wasn’t the best idea. Just bam! Profit, profit, profit.

            BloodSpew Cove actually started off swimmingly; my fireproof mice were basically the hottest seller in 2011. They helped as an early-warning for stuff like carbon monoxide or actual flames. Only problem, of course, was that they were also bullet-proof, ageless and humped like mad, which any idiot who read the fine print would have known. Luckily, those lawsuits are still pending.

            In better news, Horatio, my chickenrhino wrangler, sang the praises of my new herding dog: the taser hound. Keeps the chickenrhino’s charge-pecking to a minimum, which means food bills go down. Great stuff.

            It’s hard enough to run an island in the middle of the pacific. Try adding vicious, crafty, ungodly critters to that mix. And then try to make it profitable. This is no banana stand operation.

            Supply-wise this island is a money suck. We used to ship everything out on my forty thousand cubic foot nuclear submarine, the Arc Too. But that’s been out of commission since 2010. I’m convinced that the more money a vehicle costs, the faster it breaks. Currently, we get all our supplies from Amazon.

            Six days out from the meeting, my father came for a preliminary inspection. His goatee, as always, was waxed to a full point.

            “So, you want to give me the run down?” he said. I hemmed and hawed that I was still in early stages of the presentation and wouldn’t want to divulge an unfinished draft.

            “You haven’t started yet,” he said, taking off his signature square, bright red sunglasses and rubbing his eyes. “Listen, Nate. This island is an opportunity. I realize that the economy hasn’t been kind to it lately, but the board is starting to get a little worried. You need to show them that next year we’ll be in the red, and not the kind of red we’ve been seeing recently.”

            I kicked some dirt under a lab table.

            “These escapes,” said my Dad. “This island is a death trap. Three maimed interns, Ken Klatch eaten two months ago, three lackeys who now have both SARS and AIDS. The escaped electrified wolfverines roaming the forest making it so Amazon has to deliver to my island for safety purposes? I mean Nate…”

            He stopped when he noticed a tear trace my cheek. He put a hand on my shoulder.

            “It’s OK. Just take care of those electrified wolfverines. Everything else should be fine.”

            His helicopter hadn’t even taken off before the alarms started going again. Another escape. Two decapitated lackeys later, we managed to goad the lobstergent back into his sand hut.

            It took forty eight hours in bed for me to break out of that bout of depression.

            I mean, in the beginning, I’d set out in hopes of conquering the planet with my heinous affronts to God’s plan. Right now? I’d seriously just settle for amusement park status. Y’know, ship in kids by the ferry load, tire the suckers out and then hit their parents' wallets with a gift shop at the exit. Man, that would be the life.

            Three days out from the meeting and things were actually looking up! We had to clean out the Snale tank — a whale-sized aquatic snake — and it went off without a hitch: no deaths. Surprisingly, lackeys are pretty hard to come by these days. They’ve got to be hardy, strapping and bereft of a single individual thought. Also, it helps if they’re of various nationalities; you don’t want to get slapped with the old “Arian Domination” label.

            It’s a great island though. My Dad bought it — along with several other remote, ominously-shaped islands (skull, bomb, middle finger, &c &c) — back in the nineties when it looked like property value would never stop soaring. Then when he got nailed by the market he sold all of them but his island and mine.  

            Two days to the meeting and still no progress on the wolfverine situation, but I had a brilliant thought. If I needed help, why not help myself?

            So, I cloned myself.

            I’m no idiot about cloning, I didn’t make some evil twin or anything. In fact, I added some ant genes to his makeup so he’d not only be more diligent but would take commands from me, his queen. Plus, I tattooed a big 2 on his face so I wouldn’t have to worry about any of those silly gunfight double binds with both of us yelling that we’re the real original at some indecisive lackey holding a quivering pistol.

            Needless to say my clone was a huge help. I gave him one tour of the island, showed him around the different boring jobs I had to do and boom, instant second in command. It’s amazing I didn’t think of it earlier.

            Last day before the big meeting and everything actually came together! Surprising to see. My clone pulled his weight in a major way. He even managed to herd all the electrified wolfverines back into their pit. That ant gene really put some diligent pep in his step.

            I felt good. I was getting things done and that really boosted my spirits. I beamed at the thought of the board getting to see my island then.

            Then the board meeting happened. In short, it did not go as originally planned.

            About an hour before the meeting, I was lounging on the picturesque vista by the praying manatee lagoon and my clone dropped by to give me an update. At least that’s what I was expecting. Instead, this clone had a huge five on his face and started to strangle me. So there I am about an hour before the meeting, beating my clone to death with a pina-colada-filled coconut to the chittering snorts of the praying manatees below. Quite a scene!

            Welp, turns out I put Queen ant genes into my clone instead of just worker ant so that was a faux pas on my part. Basically, my clone was clandestinely pumping out ancillary clones and cleaning up to keep me distracted. By the time the Gay Phantom arrived — he’s always the most punctual — in his invisible submarine, the place was pretty much bedlam.

            Clone 2 was trying to destroy every other creature on the island to make room for his brood of copies — I saw a clone numbered 59 suplex a security guard. I had to text Miss Languardo to get on the intercom and let all staff know that they needed to basically flee or be mercilessly destroyed.

            We ended up having the board meeting in Professor Knife’s Hover-Scythe.

            “It appears our investment,” I said, not even bothering to open the PowerPoint presentation I’d prepared, “will need a longer-term view.”

            My father and the board eventually agreed to a small downsize. Total, eschaton-level melt-down of an evil island was actually covered in our insurance package, so that was great foresight.

            I’m currently looking into office space around the Silicon Valley area. I figure we can have a cool office with like a Ping-Pong table, video games and maybe something edgy like a beer vending machine. That sort of stuff boosts morale. I want to make sure my staff and abominations don’t feel like they’re getting the short end in this deal. They’re the ones who really matter, after all.




Inventive dogs. Scrumptious tots. A great spot for a quick lunch.


Cock-a-Doodle Deal

Wow that is a breathtakingly bad pun (if that can even be considered a pun). You’ll not pay much though.



Sitting inside consists of solely counter space around the outside of the room. Probably accommodates 15 comfortably. Fits the style of food perfectly though, plus the rooster décor is awesome.


Struttin’ Their Stuff

Order from the cashier. Get food from the cashier.



If you’re in the mood for a killer dog, solid sandy or some hot tots (hot in the “popular” sense, not spicy-hot), Blue Rooster will have you crowing. There is now a special nook in hell for me thanks to all these rooster puns.

Five Fifty-Five - Portland, ME

“You know barkeep,” I say to the barkeep. “this is a great salad.” He nods. “I mean, this salad…” I point at the salad with my fork and grunt. He nods again. There’s a pause where I look him in the eyes for a while and try not to blink.

            “It’s a great salad,” says the barkeep. He looks away and starts cleaning a glass. I blink.

            “I mean, I’d take this salad out to dinner.” I punctuate the last statement with a snort and a know-what-I’m-saying style vaudeville wink. The bartender raises his eyebrows and nods. He goes to walk away and I call him back.

            “C’mere,” I say. “C’mere and just smell this thing. Garlic, cheese, white anchovy,” I grab his lapel. “I mean you can just smell the smoke in this thing!” The menu boasts that they smoke the romaine and you can taste it — it’s tender too. The barkeep calmly waits until I release my grip. I keep eating, chuckling in awe as I do. After a couple bites I let go. The barkeep fixes his hair and goes to ask the other patrons at the bar how they’re doing. He’s a nice guy, this barkeep.

            “Y’know, barkeep,” I say, clinking my knife against my full glass of water. “I’d date this salad.” He laughs. “Seriously,” I say.

            I am serious. I would court this salad to the point of marriage. The bartender’s not even batting an eye. He’s just straight-facing a man saying that he’s falling in love with a salad. And I’m not kidding. Does he think I’m kidding? I’m not. Top notch service at 555. Just a pleasure of a place.

            “It’s beautiful,” I say. A beautiful thing to find love. I grab a passing server.

            “Who made this salad?” I nearly scream it at her. I can’t help it. A piece of romaine sticks to her nicely pressed collar.

            “I’m sorry, sir.” She says. “Are you asking where we source our ingredients from?” I shake my head, chuckling. What a great interpretation of my question. Wrong, but great.

            “Made it. Made the salad. Whose hands created this?”

            She levels an open palm toward the kitchen. “Our chefs, sir.” The barkeep is already back, showing his support. She’s playing me cool too. She must be twenty — a professional for her age. “Is there a problem with it?”

            “A problem?” I lean down and rub my face in the salad and grab her coat at the same time. Then I pull her close to my face so she gets a whiff of the dressing caked up in my facial hair and the pieces of lettuce and the crouton now lodged in my nose. “You smell that? That’s pure delicious.”

            She smiles at me and waits for me to let go. I give her some wildeye and snort the crouton out of my nose. She nods.

            “Good,” I say. This place is top notch. Five Fifty-Five, what a name. The whole bar is looking at me now — plus some patrons peeping from over from the dining area. I let go of her after looking around a bit.

            “We’re glad you like it,” says the barkeep.

            “Yeah, that’s great,” says the server. They’re so good they must be robots. Androids. Keeping calm with me grabbing them and snortin’ ‘tons. It makes me respect them.

            I bet in the height of Rome they didn’t have service this good. I could probably bring a severed lion head in here and they’d smile and ask how I’d like it done. Kings wish their retinues were this good. Such food. I grab the plate, dump it on the ground and body slam the rest. People watch as I writhe through the grub.

            “Really great stuff,” I repeat. The barkeep leans up over the bar and smiles.

            “It’s tasty,” he says. “I love that salad.”

            “Get the manager!” I shriek that one. By now I’m covered in all sorts of Ceasar Salad bits. The floor is kind of smeared with the dressing and I’m doing Caesar angels by the time he shows.

            “Sir, I see you’re enjoying the salad.” The manager is another smooth customer. I chuck an anchovy at him and he lets it hit his laundered suit. He doesn’t even wipe the white mark. Then I lob a handful of salad and he opens his mouth. Doesn’t catch any but I appreciate the gesture.

            “You guys have a vomitorium?” I ask.

            The server, barkeep and manager look at each other and shrug.

            “I’m sorry sir,” says the manager. “We don’t know what that is.”

             At length, I explain to them the fabled upper limits of excess in late Roman culture. The vomitorium, legend goes, was a place where full-bellied revelers could go to upchuck their meals so as to free up space and keep the fête fêting.

            “One sec,” says the manager. “Let me check with the owners.” He hustles out and leaves me with the server and barkeep. I try to get up and slip in the greasy mess. The barkeep rounds the bar and the server is already rolling up her sleeves to help me. I bellow at them to stand back. Wriggling like a snake, I make a fair tour of the facility. Keeping my arms locked close to my sides I slitheringly locomote around under feet and chairs. I even make a tour of the kitchen, hasty chefs step over and around me without complaint.

            Back at the bar I use a chair for leverage and haul myself up. Everybody is smiling and grinning, having a great goddamn time. Who knew a place like this could be so jovial. I salute them and make a sprinting leap out the front window. Laying on the street in a pile of glass shards and trickling blood I hear the barkeep crunch up next to me.

            “You forgot your salad,” he says to me. Sure enough he’s holding a little to-go box of salad that he scraped off the floor. I thank him profusely and limp home.

            Later that evening I pick out the ring on TV. Me and the salad get married three days later. It’s a tasteful ceremony at my childhood church. Not too many in attendance, just close relatives. You can imagine how I feel seeing the love of my life wheeled down the aisle by the manager. He even draped the pushcart in a gorgeous wedding dress. Those guys at 555 really know their service.

            Fifty-five years later and me and my Caesar Salad are still together. We have kids with two grand kids on the way. Beautiful family. Wonderful life. My Caesar Salad is a couples therapist and I’ve made enough money in aboveground swimming pool foreclosure to while away the days painting watercolors in my garage studio. Still-lives mostly — is what I paint — with the occasional landscape thrown in.

And there I am sitting in my garage when I hear a chuckle in the house — a man’s chuckle.

            Bursting in the door I find my salad on the table with the manager. He’s sitting across the table, a cup of coffee steaming in front of him. Sure, he’s got the lines of age but he looks healthy and great and he gives me a wave. I wave right back.

            “Manager,” I say.

            “Howdy,” he says. I shake his hand across the table, not realizing I’ve still got wet paint on there. I apologize but the manager just smiles. It’s a hell of a shock seeing him after all this time but we fall back into easy conversation.

            The toilet flushes and out comes the server, wiping her hands on a beige towel initialed S & M. Stands for Salad and Me.

            I wave to her and she motions for the barkeep to get off the couch and come say hi. They’re all still wearing the same stuff they were that one night way back fifty-five years ago.

“Happy anniversary,” says the barkeep. Anniversary? I’d forgotten all about that! Who could have goddamn guessed that fifty five years later here come these wonderful people back to celebrate the day I met my salad wife.

            We all sit in the drawing room and reminisce about the great times we had at 555.

            “And then…” the Manager is laughing. “And then he just commando crawls all around the dining room. The whole thing!”

            “No!” I say.

            “Yes. Yes you did!” The waitress points and laughs, tears rolling through the grooves of the crow’s feet etched beside her beautiful eyes.

“No I didn’t! I did not commando crawl!” I silence them with my hands, waving them down. They all go quiet except for little chuckles and hoos as they get the laughs out. Expectation is palpable in the air.

            “I slithered.” I say, and then I slither out of the room to the thunder of their laughter. Salad just sits there on the table. Man. 555. What super times. Stellar people. Really love that place.






We’re talking the real deal here. A Caesar is a dish that is hard to mess up and equally difficult to improve. Five Fifty-Five improved it with the addition of smoked romaine leaves. Utter magic. Their burger is also insanely good. I have not yet had their tasting menu but I have been assured by reliable sources that it is, indeed, ballzerko. Full disclosure, I have only actually eaten the burger and Caesar Salad. Twice. Both were of such high quality that I have utter confidence in the rest of the menu. I will be sampling it soon.



Is joke. Is funny. Kidding aside, it is a pricier establishment. In this circumstance, though, with price comes quality. This meal is worth every cent.


Low Light. Just Right.

It’s the ambience you’d expect and desire at a place with such great food. Wood, exposed brick, sparse art, this is a comfortable nook to nestle into for a delightfully protracted meal.


High Five

Another shining gold star goes to the service. Knowledgeable and prompt. These people deserve some mad tippage.



It is not necessarily my go-to nice restaurant in Portland, but it is a staple. You will walk out pleased as punch.

Starlite Diner - Moscow, Russia

             Biting into the burger, I felt a tear in my eye. Outside, cars hummed through frozen air along Strastnoy Boulevard near Moscow’s center. M. watched me bite into the burger with anticipation. She’d brought me to Starlite Diner because she wanted to see how a real American reacted to this simulacrum of Americana. Moscow was her home. It certainly wasn’t mine.

            Nestled next to Tchaikovsky concert hall in Aquarium Park, Starlite Diner doesn’t so much stick out as appear by surprise. To get there, M. and I caught the subway and braved a brief, frigid walk. Through puffs of ghostly breath, I spotted the diner, looking as if a tornado had carried it straight from Kansas and plopped it here in the wintery heart of Moscow.

Constructed from materials shipped all the way from Florida, Starlite Diner is a piece of authentic Americana. Right down, or up, to the neon sign — a shooting star with the name emblazoned in both English and Cyrillic — perched on its chrome top.

M. had wanted to take me to the Starlite Diner for weeks, but something had always come up. Now, on this Saturday morning two days before my return to America, after three solid months of negative temperatures and a thimble of cumulative sunlight, I was getting a taste of home.

I ordered a burger called “The Really Big Shawn,” consisting of three patties, chili, cheese, jalapenos and bacon resting upon a bed of fries. The menu suggested I bring an appetite for it. I did.

My second bite of the burger brought more cheese, mild chili and smoky bacon. I chased the burger with fry after crinkle-cut fry and saturated the lot with hearty pulls on my vanilla milkshake.

It didn’t feel as though I was simply eating a burger. It was much too good for that. I was releasing pressure from the almost constant difficulty that had characterized my stay in Russia. My stay thus far had only been three and a half months. Three and a half months of sleeping on a modified couch in a flat with five roommates, walking to and from work in the oppressive, half-light of Moscow’s unyielding winter, always having a little less money than necessary, eating the same cost-cutting meals and being cut off from extensive human contact by an impenetrable language barrier. Not that I’d had any illusions going into the situation that it would be easy. But, originally, I thought I could cut it. And, in total, it wasn’t even the worst situation to be in, mostly uncomfortable. That’s why the tear, the relief at the thought of home, came as such a shock.

            M. asked me how it tasted. I told her with grunts, surreptitiously wiping the tear with my napkin. She’d been a fantastic guide and good friend to me the months I’d spent in Russia. We’d gone to Gorky Park in the rain and toured the stern grounds of the Kremlin and Red Square. She had deep knowledge of Moscow’s history and tended to show her city in a brighter light than what it appeared to me, an outsider. Obviously, having grown up there, Moscow was her home, and she loved it.

Outside, snow fell, each flake evenly spaced; I couldn’t have told you if it had just been snowing that day or for weeks. It was the type of snow that one simply had to bear, which fit rather snugly into the greater Russian spirit, it seemed. From learning more about Russian history: life under the tsars, life under communism and now life under Putin, burdens to be lived under appear to be a birthright. But given the weather, the culture and the political climate, Russia — as far as I saw through the people I met — is a place where people bear hardship not even as a matter of course, but joyfully, snickering behind hardship’s back, as if to collectively say “you think this is bad?”

            The Starlite Diner itself was started by an enterprising American, Sean Mckenna. With all the American and European ex-pats living in Russia, he’d guessed there was a market for good, wholesome Americana, and been right. The interior is as art deco as one would expect in any Johnny Rockets or local stainless steel dining car. The menu is the same laminated poster-sized litany of items, with lots of pictures and ample English. The seats are the same squeaky plastic linoleum and the waitresses all wear aprons and dresses straight out of Happy Days. From outside, it most certainly feels out of place when considering it beside the concrete scowls of most other Soviet-era Russian architecture. But the weirdness soon fades, as the flawlessness of the execution brings even a dyed in the wool American like me back to a place like home. And that’s why I was sad.

            I was sad because I wanted to go home. The sad part not being the feeling of longing for home, but the realization that I really, truly yearned for home.

            Never before had a country broken me like Russia did. And I don’t want to chalk it up simply to Russia. It was a perfect storm of components, every part of my life there had been difficult in some way. And thus, the easy familiarity of Starlite Diner got the better of me. I thought I was stronger and that made me ashamed. I came to Russia because I knew it wouldn’t be a cake walk, I knew it would be colder and harsher and more difficult than, say, Amsterdam or New York City. But I didn't expect it to actually be so hard. And it made me feel both in awe of the people like M. who not only lived there but loved it with a fiery, passionate devotion, but small and weak in their presence.

            To the Muscovites I worked with the cold was never that cold. The long workdays could have been longer. The grey, sunless sky was much more dense last winter, and the winter before? Don’t even speak of it.

            Russia taught me my limits — how much closer they were than I had expected.

            M. had told me more than once that Moscow was the greatest city in the world. And to her it was. She’d grown up there, knew her way around, spoke the language, and relished in the difficulty that the weather brought.

            Living in Maine now, I think I understand what she felt. I know what it means to live in a place considered inhospitable by many. That’s part of the allure. Actually, it might be more than simply a part. Everyone likes to feel tough.

            Perhaps if I’d been slated for a longer stay I would have gotten through it. I would have hardened to the surroundings and kindled some rough happiness in my frozen chest. But that’s not how it worked. I was broken and I left, tail between my legs, defeated by something I still don’t understand.

            Starlite Diner was a panacea: everything I could have needed. M. probably knew that and that’s why she brought me there. I ate everything on my plate and everything in my glass. I wolfed it all down while crying a single tear of lonely patriotism.

That tear was surrender. That tear was weakness. That tear was my broken spirit crawling out, slain, decrepit and pitiable — for all to see. I don’t even think M. noticed.




Good old fashioned legitimate Americana. Well made shakes, fine burgers and more options than you can shake a vintage Chevy stick shift at.


Pocket Rubles

Moscow is damn expensive almost everywhere you look. This is a rare deal that really feels like you’re getting bang for your buck (razzmatazz for your ruble?).


Beaver Cleaver

Gosh golly jee jiminy jillikers.



Moscow, like Portland, ME, has not collectively mastered the art of serving patrons. HOWEVER, Starlite has great service. Check plus.



If, for some unknown reason (special agent shenanigans), you are in Moscow, go to Starlite for a healthy, hearty dose of home (if that is your home… traitorous spy!).  Anyway, yeah Starlite is great. Go there and be happy, or sad, your choice.


Empire Chinese Kitchen - Portland, ME

Marti stumbled onstage.  Upon touching the polished wood his thick-soled prescription shoes let out a hideous squark. Draped in an ill-fitting suit, his shirt half-un-tucked, his tie askew and a distinct mustard stain on the crotch of his black pants he turned to the audience with a mole-like squint.

            The audience roared. Nearly one hundred thousand of them were packed into the stadium to see Marti perform. The house lights had come down and only the varnished brown stage, Marti and his instrument were lit. Camera flashes popped from the darkness of the crowd. Marti sneezed wetly into his tie and then scratched his boat-like posterior.

            To say that Marti moved with ungainly slowness would be an affront to both words. He was a hoving slug of a man. His instrument lay across the stage, glinting like a dentist’s tools under the harsh spotlights. Upon reaching center stage, Marti got tangled in his own feet and toppled like a warm tower of cheese. Instantaneously, a severe, black-suited man with commanding eyebrows appeared from the wings and helped Marti to his feet. The clapping had died to just a thunderous din, hoarse voices shouting Marti’s name from every nook and cranny of the packed amphitheater.

            Upon getting Marti upright, the severe man melted into the wings.

            Marti’s skin had a sickly pale sheen of grease. After wobbling to some sort of steady standing position, he flashed his teeth at the audience. They were tiny, each with ample breathing room in its space in Marti’s gums. At Marti’s direct recognition of the assembled crowd, pandemonium took hold.

            Marti waved a grotesque claw of a hand, nails yellow and long, and the top nearly blew off the place.

It was time for Marti to perform.

            Marti took what seemed to be his first steps in the direction of his instrument. His hands shook and sweat had formed two black half moons beneath his arms. Like the visible stink that emanated from Marti’s ovoid frame, the giddy anticipation in the place was palpable. They had come for Marti, and here, in all his glory, Marti was.

            With a languishing plop, Marti lay himself on the cold metal of his instrument. Its seat was form fitted to fit Marti’s ungainly proportions.

If one expected — finally seated in his instrument — an eerie calm to descend on Marti’s stricken, shaking face, they would be wrong. He continued to fidget and generally look miserably nervous. Something appeared horribly wrong. Yet the audience seemed either not to notice or actively love Marti’s discomfort, because as soon as his ghastly rump touched the shining metal of his instrument’s seat, the collective roar became a howling typhoon.

            Marti lay there, bathing awkwardly in the adulation of the audience as the severe man appeared again. He lifted a colander-like apparatus from behind the instrument and placed it on Marti’s grease-slicked head.

At last his fidgeting ceased. The instrument began to hum and the audience dove into a buzzing silence.

            From its center, the chair and Marti himself began to let off a hazy glow. Slowly, steadily the instrument began to pulse with ethereal light. The audience fell completely silent and their faces were illuminated into glowing ovals of anticipation. Marti’s torso, or the region just above it, shook with a terrible violent whiteness before disappearing. Marti and the chair had vanished.

The audience gasped. But then, beneath their exclamations and whispered excitement, a low note pierced the turmoil.

It was beautiful.

            The note rose and snaked its sibilant way through the air, as if sung for each individual specifically. Simply one note blanketed the stadium, immaculate in its pitch and timbre. It made you feel heavy, pushed down into your seat with the beauty of it. As the note trailed off and the stillness of the theatre was nearly complete, the visions exploded into view.

            Pure thought made manifest: primal views of the neuron’s potential, not of a specific idea but of the kernel of an idea, not a happy vision but a vision of happiness incarnate. Sights, with now glorious sounds emanating from them, glittered on the stage and with each pulse of their unthinkable shape ruined the crowd with the ecstasy of their presence.

            Marti’s mind had made this. This shifting, coagulation of joy that now entranced the entire audience and millions watching remotely. There was no execution by Marti involved. Pure and simply put, these were the potential of Marti’s thoughts. A vision into the unknown realm of could, where the power of his untapped dreams were allowed to escape.

            At first, many tried to play the instrument, including men of incredible caliber and executional skill in every other realm of life. Piano grandmasters, writers, doctors and the highest-minded physicists all had tried their hand at it. But what the instrument amplified was not execution, but the opposite. So those with little, those losers, those outcasts, those good-for-nothings found that their talents far outstripped society’s elite. Beauty sprung from barren soil, not fertile ground. In other words, the machine ran on potential, not execution.

            Tears of joy painted the audience's cheeks. Spouses hugged, children held their parents clothes, lovers squeezed each other’s thighs, all sobbing and laughing at the purity of an emotion so perfectly raw. Like transposition into the very heart of both their sweetest nostalgia and highest triumph, the people were engulfed in the sight and sound that Marti’s mind expelled. The tones were more meaningful than any instrument plucked or blown. The sights were more arresting than the birth of a first child or the naked back of a newfound love. There was no Marti and the audience during the nearly three-hour show. It was simply individuals by themselves, alone with not what they thought they wanted but with what they needed at a fundamental level. Marti presented them with what they had been denied by the very structure of their minds: purity, clarity and unmitigated happiness. And it was not a cheap empty happiness but a lasting appreciation of the full, tragic beauty of our brief station on this floating rock and the significance and impossibility of us all being here at this exact point in time, striving valiantly — together and alone — to find meaning in nothing.

            At last, the stage went silent. Every member of the audience sat mute, basking in the afterglow of their mutually departed bliss. Marti lay in his chair, fidgeting, sweat ringing his waist and crotch. The severe man slipped beside him and removed the helmet. With ungainly gyrations, Marti wiggled himself out of his seat. The crowd remained in stunned silence as Marti wobbled to the center of the stage. Marti bowed, revealing an ominously dark stain on the seat of his pants. A mile away, a flock of crows were startled from a pine tree at the explosion of cheers.

            A retinue of security guards rose from below the stage, holding the frothing masses back. Marti hobbled away from the instrument, now lying inert and sodden. He only fell once before disappearing behind the silk curtains of the stage.





Well-prepared and flavorful, this is Empire’s strong suit. The dishes each have a unique feel and match their price in terms of sophistication. Really great stuff.


Early in the Month

It’s not expensive, per se. But it won’t be your go-to spot when the well is starting to run dry.


Wood Enthusiast

Wood, bamboo, other types of carbon. A spare, cohesive space with just enough decoration to give it an authentically hip feel. Very nice job.


The Catch

This is what spawned the review. In its raw, conceptual form, Empire is everything you want: great Chinese fare, cool atmosphere, reasonably-ish priced. In execution, it all falls apart. I’ve been to Empire at least five times in trying to give it the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, every single time I’ve been there something has gone wrong. My first experience was of being stranded by the bar without service for a two-hour meal in which my appetizer of choice ran out after I had ordered it. Second time was much the same as the first, much waiting by the window seats. Third time I tried sitting in the main dining area and there was literally an aphid in one of my dining-mate’s noodles. Fourth and fifth were a bit better but still included basic misses like not getting utensils before our food, long waits, missing servers and water that stayed empty the whole meal. I don’t want you to think of this as purely the servers’ fault, it’s not. This seems like a fundamental flaw in Empire’s very structure. Something needs to be worked out with either the food preparation or the communication, because as it stands, food takes way too long and is way too inconsistent. I want to like Empire so much because the food and ambience are so great, but there is no escaping the vortex of unhappiness that has been my experience dining in.



I’m not going to say skip it, because I know it’s great. I didn’t even mention the concert venue upstairs, which is also awesome. Empire is a great place it just really needs to get its act together before I go in there to eat again.



Joe's Smoke Shop & Super Store - Portland, ME

           A man named Nate is contemplating whether or not to enter Joe’s Smoke Shop. From across the street, the squat, brick façade of Joe’s appears to be aflame, sunlight striking it with early summer violence. Nate is a new resident of Portland, Maine. He is — as the locals call it — from away.

            Joe’s Smoke Shop is one of the few remaining shops near the heart of Congress street to retain the semblance of a Portland that once was. Not that that particular version of Portland was any better or more charming than the Portland of today, simply that it was closer, more pure, to the origins of Portland. Nearer to the source of its Maine-ness, Nate could say.

            Herein we find the crux of the paradox. Does Nate himself become more of a Mainer by entering Joe’s? Or does Nate stay out of Joe’s, allowing it to retain more of its native vibrancy?

            He wants to go into Joe’s. He has heard about their fine fare.  Delicious breakfast sandwiches, meatball subs with melted cheese and, indeed, even tuna subs, equal to any grandmother’s recipe, all available at a reasonable price. These treats are accompanied by a beer and wine selection deemed modest at very best. Despite all these realities, Nate still wants to enter the store. He wants to feel slightly more entrenched in his adopted homeland and going into Joe’s Smoke Shop certainly feels like an avenue to do that. Indeed, it very much is. But, because of his non-native heritage, any small bit of actual native Maineness he experiences in Joe’s — be it accent, custom or simply the stock (whoopee pies, all-dressed chips, lobster rolls and the like) — so too does he leach that bit of uniqueness straight from Joe’s itself.

            This is a zero sum game of Maineness. This is a microcosm of unique culture everywhere. Each foreign culture began as a separate dish of unique flavor and appeal. Now, thanks to globalization, in all its forms, our earth is rapidly becoming a vast melting pot of culture. Societies and social norms, mixing and mingling, imparting bits of their own experience onto bits of other until, in time, the globe will be a singular grey place, with neither nooks nor crannies nor pockets of difference: uniform, uninteresting, unchanging, eternal.  

            The danger of cross-contamination, thinks Nate, of dissolution and dilution is no joke. It is simply too slow for anyone to really wrap their head around. Entering Joe’s is not simply a dilution of the native Maineness that exists inside Joe’s, it’s a broaching of the future’s trust. Though, here we could get into the paradox of the need for capital investment for a place to survive and what that means for the culture of the place itself, but let it simply be said that to preserve a native place, it can only, truly, be frequented by natives, or those who are of equally interesting stock.

            The only way for Nate to have both his cake and the pleasure of eating it would be to find the ability to adopt Maine’s cultural mannerisms and mores with an insane and preternatural quickness. Only if he hunkers down, listening to the lexicon, mimicking the speech, mannerisms and even quirks of the establishment’s proprietors and employees can he hope to preserve it, as one preserves a national park by carrying out what they take in. Of course this means he becomes a spy, a turncoat against his own cultural upbringing, taking up the standard of a different master. Only if he does this does he preserve the dividing lines between Maine culture and his own.

            But can he do this? Can he betray his own past for the purpose of upholding another’s? What about his own upbringing? What about his own brand of wildness?

            Should not we all become a more potent distillation of ourselves, picking up nothing of the outside world and following only the savage and illogical inner truths that develop only in the most remote of isolation? Would that make our world a loony bin of differing opinion and understanding, if everyone simply chose not to adopt any other’s ways? Would two people be unable to connect anymore? Would it simply be an unmoored rumble of ships passing at various times of night, unable to call out to each other or offer help in the blackness of the raging sea?


            Before the natives of Joe’s were wilder ancestors still. Generations upon generations ago, unimaginable people, they were, even more interesting and inscrutable than present incarnations of that age-old bloodline living up in Caribou or on the frosty shores of Togue Pond. Imagine the thickness of their accents, the coarseness of their furs and the oddness of their traditions. Despite all these oddities, they still interacted with one another, traded and made friends. Friends enough to eventually be wrangled into calling themselves Mainers after all. Accepting a label to their homebrewed quirks.

            Brutes, they were. Twelve feet tall, able to feast on Maple trunks like spits of asparagus. They loped through the woods like wendigos, bathed in riverbeds, drove moose before them like sheep. The women carried babies four at a time, knit clothes from the quills of porcupine and slayed deer with simply a stern gaze.

            These were no wimpy peoples. It takes a rough kind to make it through the long winters of Southern Maine, as it stands. So, one must strain to imagine these indomitable stones of people. They must have been harder and more jagged than the very landscape itself.

            Now, the plight becomes clear. Does Nate go inside? Does Nate flaunt his own weak brand of culture before these living ancestors to giants? Does he silently weaken the raw origins of native Maine with his pale arms and nearly hairless legs?

            Or does Nate go out and become his own self? Does he go and find for himself the origins of his own bloodline? Does he seize the nearest (willing) woman and run with her, pell-mell, into the deep woods, fashioning for himself a sovereign nation, which will birth its own fiendishly unique offspring? If he were a strong man, thinks Nate, he would do this. If he were a unique man, thinks Nate, he would do this. But, what Nate doesn’t understand is that inside of each and every one of us lurks a uniquely strong man.

            Each one of us has the seeds of ragged authenticity, dormant inside. In a society with any sort of pressure to conform — which is all societies — the seed will remain inert in nearly all of us. Certainly, there are people made of such rugged stock that, like a ragged weed, their inner seeds grow and flourish no matter the conditions. But for the majority, the seed slumbers, preserved inside, quiet and useless.

However, we must only give that seed space and time. Simply space and time. With only those two gifts, a seed of weird, wild inner oddness can grow. Anyone, if serious about their isolation, can become the source of a river delta of a bloodline that fans out, hewing raging torrents through the sedimentary rock of society itself!

            But that is for the wilder sort, mistakenly thinks Nate. In the moment, Nate just wants a tuna sub and a six-pack of beers for later. So Nate chooses to go inside as any one of us would do. He chooses to preserve nothing, depleting Maine’s reserves charm for his own benefit. Better that he give them his money, he thinks, to preserve some semblance of what they are, than allow them to founder, which is a fine point, but a sad one nonetheless. And so, without further hesitation, Nate steps into Joe’s Smoke shop and all is as it will and must become.





3.0 Stars

It doesn’t look like a place where you’d find gourmet food. But the food is damn tasty in its own right. Sure, they’re not using locally-sourced, catch-of-the-day ingredients, but Joe’s is fine in a pinch, especially when the cash flow is running dry.


Dollars and cents

Joe’s is, if nothing else, an excellent way not spend money. There is a reason why many of the clientele do not appear gainfully employed. Joe’s has a niche and it nails it.


Scary Gas Station

Not that it’s dirty, it’s actually pretty damn clean. It simply has a hint of scariness. One does not feel particularly welcome in Joe’s, no matter the time of day or night.


Made to Order

The cooks behind the counter are quick and kind. One woman (I have yet to catch her name) who’s behind the counter most weekdays at lunch, reminds one of a friend’s mom. Great service in my experience, despite everything the exterior and interior would lead you to believe.



Muster up your inner Mainer and check out Joe’s. This is a great Portland haunt that will serve you up a tasty breakfast/lunch, quick and cheap. Also, if you need beer or wine, there’s no easier stop if you live even remotely close to the West End. I know what most people will say, “Joe’s is creepy!” Yes. Joe’s is creepy. But Joe’s is also proficient in its areas of business. Please, if you go into Joe’s, don’t think about what could change. Joe’s is a crazy, less-than-attractive place in the midst of finer dining spots like Boda and Pai Men Miyake. Simply be a paying ghost. Go in, experience a still-remaining wacky nook of Portland, pay some money and get the heck out.