What's great in wine, beer, fine dining,
places to stay, & places to visit
in California State

By Dan Clarke

Though I didn’t get to Chicago until I was in my 40’s, I had looked forward to the visit for a long time.

My presumptions about the city came in part from grade school teachers. Most of these women in the bulky black habits were from the Chicago area. They did a fine job imparting the basics of our education, but they also told us about the Bears, the Cubs, Wrigley Field and El trains—all topics more interesting to most of us than the Beatitudes, Sorrowful Mysteries and diagramming of sentences.

I remember one spring day when Sister St. Arthur showed our catcher how to pick off a runner. From a crouch behind home plate she fired the ball out to our second baseman--flat, no arc. It made an audible pop when it hit his glove about a foot above the bag. She threw a football better than our quarterback, too. We assumed these nuns had God on their side, but we figured they didn’t need His help to deal with the likes of us. They were Chicago and they were tough.Bill George photoBears linebacker Bill George.

Growing up in Northern California, most of us were 49er fans, but we had to respect the Bears of the 1950’s when they were known as “The Monsters of the Midway.” Detroit and Cleveland may have been winning more games then, but Chicago’s irascible head coach and owner George Halas had guys like Ed Sprinkle, Rick Casares and Bill George. They were physically formidable and borderline scary. A few years later Chicago drafted an end from Pitt who also had that toughness. Mike Ditka played 12 years in the National Football League. Later he returned to coach the Bears. Along the way he got into the restaurant business and is now the proprietor of Mike Ditka’s Chicago on East Chestnut Street.

My first visit to the city was about 20 years ago. It was May, so catching a Bears game was out, of course. But I did see the Cubs beat the Dodgers at Wrigley Field and rode the El trains. Chicago seemed exciting then—vibrant. Several subsequent trips have only confirmed that first impression.

More than once I’ve heard people call Chicago “a great restaurant town.” I couldn’t disagree, as I’ve enjoyed many fine meals there. While I haven’t yet been in Ditka’s place, a visit to the restaurant’s website has led me to put it on my list for a future trip.

When I heard a few years ago that the Bear Hall-of-Famer had his name on a bottle of California wine I was mildly intrigued. Learning that it would be available in a limited national distribution and not just at his restaurant made the news more interesting. And discovering that the Mendocino County Zinfandel blend would retail for something approaching $50 really got our attention.

So we acquired a bottle of 2004 Kick Ass Red. But what to do with it? We assumed it would be on the brawny side and that it was intended to complement the robust cuisine at Ditka’s restaurant. These days so many “big” California wines—especially Zins—are way too alcoholic to enhance a meal. Would this be another of those misguided macho efforts? Tasting it with food seemed the only way to go. We thought it would be unfair--and unfun--just to try to copy entrees seen on the menu page of the restaurant’s website. Maybe barbecuing our own idea of Kick Ass food would be a better path.

Mike Petersen, who has written book reviews for this publication and for California Wine and Food, is a native Chicogoan. He’d have to be included in whatever analysis might ensue. A couple of days after Petersen bought into the idea, the two of us met for beers with our friend Mike Eady. Before we could announce our barbecue plans, Eady related a story about his driving a rental car out from Chicago to see a minor league baseball game somewhere in Northern Illinois just because he’d heard that the ballpark served great pork sandwiches. Clearly, he was the kind of guy who should be included in our project. It was agreed that we’d gather at my house to inaugurate the winter barbecue season, each of us preparing a dish he deemed a potential companion for a wine named Kick Ass Red.

Later, Brendan Cooke and Gary Young also volunteered to attend the tasting, though they opted to limit their participation to consuming, rather than preparing food.

Mike Ditka Kick Ass Red was primarily Zinfandel (56%), the balance comprised of Syrah (24%) and Petite Sirah (20%). The alcohol was 14.5%, which would have been high a decade or two ago, but is a point or point-and-a-half less than many of today’s offerings. As it is, the level was certainly sufficient and preferable to that of current “monsters” favored by the misguided.

Ditka as Coach PicmonkeyMike Ditka, "Da Coach"It turned out that the Kick Ass Red worked fine with all three of our dishes. Yes, it was a big wine but it was balanced. Predominant qualities were blackberry and a little black pepper. There were a couple of arched eyebrows when considering the 50 bucks we’d heard was to be the retail price, but all five on the evening’s tasting panel liked the wine. More to the point of the exercise, all agreed that the wine worked with each of the three dishes we’d cooked on the grill—the pork, the lamb and the beef.

Editor’s note: The Kick Ass Red was made by the Mendocino Wine Company in Ukiah, California (www.mendocinowineco.com). Readers who’d like to try it in it’s natural environment can find out more at www.mikeditkaschicago.com. Alternatively, they may check out three recipes we thought worked pretty well with this wine (and wouldn’t be bad with many other sturdy reds either).

 

IBVM Burgers

“I chose not to use the blue cheese or to do excessive spicing because I wanted to emphasize the flavor of the really good beef I was using (chopped sirloin, USDA Prime, about 12-15% fat content)” --Dan Clarke

1 ½ pounds ground beef2-4 strips thick bacon1 Tablespoon chopped fresh onion1 teaspoon minced fresh garlicKosher saltFreshly ground pepper1 Tablespoon crumbled blue cheese (optional)

Chop one or two thin slices of onion.Mince two or three garlic cloves.Mix one Tablespoon of the onion and one teaspoon of the garlic with the ground meat—distribute as evenly as possible.(optional) Place a little of the crumbled blue cheese in the center of each portion of meat to be made into a patty.Make two 12-ounce patties approx. 1 ½ inches thick.Wrap the perimeter of each patty with bacon, affixing the strips with toothpicksSeason each patty with salt and pepper.

Grill over a medium-hot fire ‘til medium rare. Searing each side of the patties is the goal, but the bacon fat can lead to flare ups. Move patties to indirect heat after searing to minimize this possibility.

Serve as you would any steak and without a bun.

 

Chicago Lamb

“When one thinks of a Chicago meal you picture big meat. Big, red meat. Throw in some creamed spinach and a baked potato the size of a canoe and you’re talkin' Chicago. So does lamb count as big red meat? Of course it does. Lamb is a fine accompaniment to creamed spinach and canoe potatoes. So when I fired up the grill for Chicago Night I had a beautiful boneless leg of lamb seasoned with herbs and ready to pay homage to the hearty appetites of the heartland” -–Mike Eady

1 leg of lamb, boneless and tied, about 3 ½ to 4 lbs.Olive oilRosemaryThymeCuminKosher salt

Mix together herbs and spread over the lamb after it has been given a coating of olive oil.

Cook over indirect heat in covered grill until internal temperature reaches 133 degrees for a perfect medium rare. Let rest for about 10 minutes before slicing.

 

Hog Butcher Pork Shoulder

“Although Chicago is no longer hog butcher to the world, the real Chicagoan still eats a lot of pork.” --Mike Petersen

Pork shoulder, approx. 4 poundsPolish sausage meat, approx. ½ poundRub composed of equal parts:

Sweet paprikaSpicy paprikaCayenne pepperSalt

Garlic flakes to taste

Add preferred amount of garlic flakes to rub, stir.Sauté the sausage meat. Drain and allow to cool.Rinse pork shoulder and pat dry, then cut in half.Slice a pocket into each of the pieces of pork and insert ¼ pound of Polish sausage meat into each.Rub meat with paprika/pepper/salt/garlic mixture.

Cook on covered grill over indirect heat ‘til medium.

Children have a new place to play and explore since the Sacramento Children's Museum (SCM) opened in August 2011. Located in Rancho Cordova, a Sacramento suburb, SCM's 7,000-square foot space includes a main exhibit area that showcases permanent and temporary exhibits, a special area for babies and toddlers, a creative art studio, a party room and a resource center.Sacramento Childrens Museum Logo Picmonkey

"This announcement symbolizes the beginning of a new and exciting asset for the community," said Alan Godlove, President of the SCM Board of Directors. Godlove went on to say that SCM is "a place where imaginations can roam, confidence can grow, and families can experience the power of play in a safe and welcoming environment."

SCM features various exhibit areas to encourage children's imaginations and prompt them to test, tinker, laugh, and wonder. Special shows, programs, and speakers will complement the exhibits. Although the Museum will appeal to visitors of all ages, it is designed primarily for children from birth to age eight and their families.

Museum components include:

Waterways promote wet activities such as building boats, creating whirlpools, and experimenting with water flow.

My Neighborhood has a produce stand so that children can learn the value of local produce and healthy eating. There's also a small house where children can "cook" and play dress up. This exhibit will rotate throughout the year (a mercado with Latin American food, a Russian market with Russian products, etc.) so that we can serve as a platform for cultural awareness of the incredible diversity of the Sacramento region.

World Market will help build cultural awareness and celebrate families and traditions as it relates to each individual family and child.

Raceways demonstrate the basic principles of objects in motion, such as why people don't fall out of a rollercoaster when riding upside down.

Airways include balls and scarves that swoosh through over 100 feet of large, clear tubing as children discover how objects move through the multiple pathways.

Studio of the Arts provides opportunities for self-expression and creativity, using a variety of materials.

Baby Bloomers offers safe exploration activities designed specifically for babies and toddlers.

Resource Center is a source of parenting and child development information for parents, childcare providers, and other caregivers.

Party Room is an area that can be rented for birthday and holiday celebrations.

The idea for a children's museum in Sacramento began with Kathleen Palley, a local mother and teacher, who saw a need for inspiring learning through interactivity. She started SCM, a non-profit corporation, and soon received support from local businesses, educators, librarians, professionals, children's advocates, and other family oriented organizations throughout the region. The Junior League of Sacramento, the City of Rancho Cordova and Roebbelen Construction are the three Founding Partners of the Children's Museum.

"A children's museum is about the future. When a community makes the commitment to create a children's museum, they are opening their hands to hold and care for their future. Those future leaders, artists, dreamers, scientists, farmers, parents, and explorers who are today's children," said Palley, SCM Founder.

Carl Sagan, the famed American astronomer and strong proponent of the children's museum movement, once said: "These exhibits do not replace instruction in school or at home, but they awaken and excite. A great science museum inspires a child to read a book, or take a course, or return to the museum again to engage in a process of discovery—and, most important, to learn the method of scientific discovery." (The Demon Haunted World-Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1996)

More information is available at www.sackids.org

(TravMedia.com sources contributed to this article.)

by Dan Clarke

 

Cars used to be exciting. But that was a long time ago.

Automobiles have evolved since I first began noticing them. If reliability is the standard by which you judge, then the modern products are much better. They're reliable. They get better gas mileage. They might last for 200,000 miles—maybe longer. And, if truth be told, most of them are faster than cars that seemed pretty quick when I first started driving.

All that said, there isn't much produced these days that stirs the blood. You hardly ever see a convertible and all sedans tend to resemble the ubiquitous Toyota Camry (a solid and reliable vehicle, well worth its price, but essentially a soul-less conveyance). It wasn't always thus.P8042103 PicmonkeyNot a Toyota.

Reportedly, my first words,“car keys,” were spoken as the family was about to drive away from my grandmother's house in San Mateo. It's likely the car keys referenced were for the ignition of my father's blue 1947 Dodge, purchased shortly after the war when new cars were still in short supply. Later, we moved to Sacramento and my father traded in the Dodge on a '51 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 from Foulks Motors. It was another four-door sedan, uninspiring pale green in color. But it was a powerful-for-the-time V-8. And the automatic transmission had a passing gear, so that if you really stomped on the accelerator you'd get a surge of power that might be critical in overtaking a slower car on a two-lane highway. After a couple of Volkswagens purchased in the mid-50s, Dad returned to Detroit Iron in the form of a 1959 Chevy Bel Air. Once again, it was a stodgy four-door, but it was an unusual and attractive rose color and did have a lively 283-cubic inch V-8.

As an eighteen-year-old college student with a job and moving out on his own, I accepted my father's offer to tag along when I went to slightly seedy area to check out a '53 Ford Victoria, which was about to become my own first car. Wow, a two-door hardtop, with automatic transmission and a flat-head V-8. It had a sporty black roof over body of teal green and seemed in good shape for a 10-year-old car. For my $325 I was about to start living large.

50 Ford Conv Picmonkey1950 Ford Convertible.Hearing that California Automobile Museum was to sponsor its fourth annual Sacramento CarCruise, which would mean a parade up Fulton Avenue followed by an informal car show, I began to reminisce. Fulton Avenue was a major commercial street in the post-war suburbs of my youth. I grew up in the neighborhood and have many memories.

By the time I arrive, the Highway Patrol has actually closed a half-mile stretch of this busy, four-lane road. Participating cars are already parked along the sides of the road and in lots in front of businesses and offices.

It is an all-comers event which draws proud owners of cars of no narrow definition. There are antiques, low-riders, hot rods, classics, customs and muscle cars. It is an everyman's—and everywoman's—activity.

The first car I see is a '50 Ford, a classic body design in its most Volvo 544 PicmonkeyThe 544--more function than flash.exciting convertible form. Though my '53 was a sleeker and more modern body style, they are kin. Across the street is a white Volvo 544, a bulbous design for the late 1950's and early '60s. It resembled a '46 Ford, only smaller. I'd owned a white 444, the earlier model which was nearly identical except for a split windshield. After a couple of years of good service, I traded that Volvo in on a red Triumph TR-4 at Von Housen Motors, located in those days on Fulton Ave about a couple of miles to the south.

The event organizers have hired a live band to play music of the '50s and '60s. They sound pretty good, especially since none of the musicians was alive when the tunes they are playing were popular.

Ah yes, memories are coming back. Just across from the street from the Von Housen's dealership was the Gilded Cage, a bar where a young man could hear jazz musicians of the day like Vince Guaraldi, Les McCann and Bola Sete. Less than 100 yards to the north was a Lincoln-Mercury dealer where my Dad and I had gone to see the new Lincoln Continental Mark II. Not that we could afford it, of course. We were just window shopping. The car cost $10,000—a lot of money in 1956 when you could have a new Cadillac for something less than $6,000.

There are some young people oohing and aahing over the cars of their parents' and grandparents' eras, and it is good to see them, but most of the CarCruise crowd seems considerably older. And there are a lot of smiles on their faces.

56 Nash Ambassador PicmonkeyThe Ambassador comes equipped with a bed.A 1956 Nash Ambassador with the original white, grey and pink color scheme draws considerable attention. Even sporting trendy colors of that era, a Nash would never have been on any boy's wish list in the 1950's. Not even nerds would not want to be seen in one. However, a Nash had one practical application. For years, these cars had front seats that could recline all the way so that they'd be flat and flush with the back seat, thereby making a serviceable bed. The cruise night Ambassador has the passenger side folded down to demonstrate this feature. A fellow about 25 years old stares at it for a moment, then turns to his girlfriend and says, “Hey, this would be good at the drive in.” I scan the faces around us to see if there is any concurrence from the grey-hair crowd. There is no response at the moment; perhaps I'd been the only one to hear him. But I'd like to believe that before the evening is over, a grandmother will look in the window of that Nash, smile a wistful smile and remember that yes, it was good at a drive in.58 Impala PicmonkeyImpala looks stock, but for the wheels.

There is a gorgeous 1958 Impala just like the ones I gawked at in the showroom of the Lew Williams dealership at the corner of Fulton and El Camino. There is a '59 on display, also. While it shares the same oddly-horizontal fins of our family sedan of that vintage, being a convertible, it is way cooler.

A brown '70 or '71 Coupe de Ville is parked, top down, in front of the now-defunct Buggy Whip restaurant. Many years ago I had climbed into a brown '52 or '53 Cadillac sedan in front of the Coral Reef, a popular Polynesian place which used to occupy the now-vacant lot half a block away. The restaurant's owner was one of my father's more prosperous friends and we were on the way to the Memorial Auditorium to watch Gorgeous George wrestle. A luxurious ride, sports (of a sort) and flamboyant showmanship—it all contributed to a heady and memorable night for a nine-year-old.

Crossing back to the east side of Fulton I see a cluster of Studebakers, these of the “Orphan” category, apparently Car Museum-speak for companies no longer in existence. There is a 1915, which is about a decade younger than that manufacturer's Phaeton that my grandfather bought when the family moved “down the Peninsula” from San Francisco. There is a low-mileage example of the 1963 Avanti, a Raymond Loewy-designed car that combined high performance with really great looks. It's sad that this landmark automobile wasn't enough to save a manufacturer on its way out of existence.

Chrysler 300E MB 220SE PicmonkeyChrysler 300E and Mercedes Benz 220SE.Twenty-five yards to the north are a 1959 Chrysler 300 E and a 1960 Mercedes Benz 220 SE, both gorgeous convertibles. It's possible that either could have been parked in this same spot when they were new and I was working as a busboy at Scheidel's, a German restaurant whose former parking lot they were now occupying.

I spy a '55 Buick. It's a handsome sedan and I compliment the apparent owner, a man about my age, on its appearance. He tells me it's a Century—the Buick model with the lighter body, but the bigger engine of the Super and Roadmaster models. I smile and remember that's exactly the reason I really was interested in a '55 Buick Century convertible (white body and top, with red and white leather upholstery, as I recall). Test drove it and almost bought it, but not quite (probably called for a little more money than I had at age 19 or 20). It isn't the first time this Saturday night I say to myself, “wish I had that car now.”

Almost back to Town & Country Village where my own car is parked, I notice Chevy Camaros across the street. Well, one last stop to look at some things a bit more modern while I make the transition to 2012, I decide.

Among these beautifully maintained Camaros is a handsome example of the 1969 vintage in a metallic silver-gray that catches my eye. Or maybe it is the tall blonde woman who is standing next to it. It turns out she is the owner and she tells me all about her pride and joy, even pulling out a photo album to show pictures of various stages of its restoration. In this fine Camaro, the woman has a tangible reminder of some of her own great memories and I appreciate her sharing them with me.

Getting into my own car I remember when my boyhood pal Alan returned from the South with a new red and black Camaro. It was the debut year for this GM challenger to the well established Ford Mustang. But it was better looking than the Mustang and had gobs of power. And it had an 8-track stereo. How cool were we?

Everybody who sees cars such as those at the 2012 CarCruise, sees them through his own prism. Memories will differ, but most will be happy recollections. I'll look forward to the 2013 edition of this event, but in the meantime I'll return to the museum on Sacramento's Front Street. Further information can be had at the website www.calautomuseum.org.