Monday, January 28, 2013

Kaixo Texas

I’m smoking a Davidoff, watching the empty beach, and suddenly the rain stops and a rainbow appears. I have never heard waves actually crash before. All I can think to myself is, “This is bullshit.”

Davidoff reminds me why I smoke.

Even in freezing rain, La Concha bay is breathtaking. Tourists come here in the summer, it’s considered one of the world's great surfing beaches. In January, the cold kills off all the tourists. All except one, this year.

I have always enjoyed empty beaches. They are my zen gardens. I’m trying to think of why they make me so happy. Maybe it’s the same reason I like empty restaurants: there is something serene about an empty place that’s supposed to be full of people.

It’s not just a loose metaphor: a restaurant full of people means I’m working, it means I’m on stage. An empty restaurant is the place I can relax the most, more than my own apartment. When I go home I see all the chores I have neglected. When I’m in the restaurant after everyone has left, that is probably the most peaceful place I can imagine.

Maybe I never said it explicitly; maybe it was just something people could read on my face. But being on stage for a long time warps your mind. Even when we’re not in the restaurant, it is there in the back of our minds. Nagging. When you’ve forgotten about it for a split second, that is when someone walks up to you, and asks you how work is going.

I spend so much emotional capital in the course of my job, that oftentimes I’m discombobulated on my days off.  I’m unable to make real or lasting connections with the people around me. Sometimes I’m manipulating my own feelings so closely, I forget how to react to things organically.

I’m standing on the beach, which is deserted. I can hear people speaking in the distance. They’re speaking Basque (a language with no concretely known origins). It’s a beautiful language that is completely indecipherable to me. This was what I needed to regain my sanity for the long term: a date with a language barrier. I needed to disappear to a place where I can communicate in only the most basic ways.

So nice.

Days would pass where I spoke only two to three sentences. I had never spoken so little in my entire life. Talking is my job. It is a source of entertainment, a means of comfort, and a defense mechanism. I could never choose to stop talking- I had to be forced. I’m so glad I was.

The empty dining room at Rekondo.
Because I was still operating on my American eating timeframes, I ate a lot of meals in empty restaurants. I would show up at 1PM, a late lunch for me, and find out that the restaurant wasn’t even open for lunch yet. At Extebarri, Rekondo, and Elkano, I ate the majority of my meals in solitude. Other diners would begin trickling in as I was eating my mignardises. 

The empty dining room at Elkano.
One of the longest conversations I had during my entire trip was at about 5AM at La Cuchara de San Telmo, one of the best pinxto bars in the city. It’s the fever pitch of the Tamboradda, and the kitchen has long since closed, and the cooks have set up a microphone. They are singing karaoke, still in the kitchen. There’s a disco ball lighting up the bar, and its standing room only.

There’s a group of three girls and a guy staring at me. They’re speaking quietly and pointing. I suppose I stick out like a sore thumb, about a foot taller than everyone in the bar. The guy walks up and says one word, a question:


I used a lot of hand gestures to communicate here. Whenever I ask for the check, I use the hand-across-the-neck gesture with “la cuenta por favor”. I decided this gesture would also work to say “not gay”. Even on the other side of the world, I’m still setting off false positives on peoples gaydar.

He’s disappointed, and one of the girls jabs him playfully, to say told you so. Two of the girls walk up to me, they’re speaking Basque, which sounds even better coming from attractive ladies. They tell a joke, and they laugh. Because I can’t tell even a fraction of what was said, I fall back on a technique: pretend to be stifling laughter, then laugh really hard. Crinkle the sides of my eyes, a real laugh. I feel like I’m performing brain surgery here, and my trick works, they seem put at ease. But now they’re asking me a question, and I still can’t understand. I decide to stand up straight, and confess in my native tongue.

“I don’t speak Basque.” I decide to throw in a “Barkatu” to show that I was at least trying.

Without missing a beat they switch to English. “Where are you from?” Boy do I feel like a loser for not being bilingual. But I’m also grateful I speak the language of globalization. The cooks are singing AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds”, and the whole bar is singing along, in English.

I have to think about this for a second. America? Texas? Houston? Houston is the ideal answer, but I turn it back a notch, “I’m from Texas.”

“Oh! You are from Texas?” She is making a hand gesture like she’s swinging a lasso, and pronouncing it Tayk-sass. I hold my right hand up in the shape of a gun and confirm, “Pow pow, bai, Texas.”

I’m still holding my right hand up, and her friend puts her hand on my shoulder. I’m terrible at flirting; I’m almost incapable of detecting it when a lady is actually flirting with me. When I think I AM being flirted with, I’m consistently wrong. It’s pretty magical. However I think that’s what’s happening here. Her hand smells like gin, and she has really pretty hazel eyes. “What are you doing here in San Sebastian?”

“Vacation! I just had dinner at Arzak, it was crazy.”

She makes a confused face, she hasn’t heard of Arzak. However, her friend has. She leans in to whisper in her ear, “It means he has money.”

I shake my head at her. Not gay, and not rich.

She still has her hand on my shoulder, “So who did you come here with?”

“By myself.”

“No girlfriend... no wife?”

“Nope. Solo.”

She cocks an eyebrow and smiles. I ask her, “What’s your name?”


“Justin. Pleasure to meet you.”

Everything was going so well. She looks down and can see the beginning of a tattoo on my arm. She pulls the sleeve back, and while she doesn’t recognize the image, her friend does, and gasps. “Oh my god”.

 Gentlemen? When getting a tattoo of an insane warmongering icon of your homeland, ask yourself: will this scare the shit out of gorgeous women in Europe who would otherwise potentially sleep with you? Know the consequences.

If I had a decent grasp of their language, I could probably have explained that I am not a crazy person, and that the hyperbolic pride Texas has relative to the rest of the America is not unlike the pride the Basque people have relative to the rest of Spain. However, the horrifying violence of Texas independence ended almost two centuries ago. Now it's a nostalgic fridge magnet. A custom license plate.

“Concrete shoes.”

My favorite part of this song, and the whole bar knows the words.

Isabelle’s friend is whispering into her ear, this time in Basque, and I feel her grip on my shoulder rapidly loosening.

Now I remember where I saw all these logos: "The Politics of Terrorism"

A chill runs down my spine, and I think of a series of banners that I saw 30 minutes ago, and I suddenly realized, it was an ETA prisoner amnesty banner. The ETA is the face of the Basque separatist movement. The one definitively labeled as a terrorist organization by the EU and United States. The one that has claimed over 800 lives in the last 50 or so years in the name of Basque independence. The one that declared an allegedly “permanent” ceasefire only two years ago. It has not surrendered its arms or disbanded though, and has broken permanent ceasefires multiple times. 

I saw this more than once.

Suddenly, I realize, I have seen various logos for a terrorist organization at every bus stop, on every street corner, on every ancient artifact I looked upon. The dark heart of mankind is constantly on my mind, but of all the places I did not expect it to surprise me, it was during my vacation.


Unfortunately, I can now see how these ladies might have been repulsed by my tattoo. I’m not feeling guilty about getting it put on my forearm forever, but I do feel guilt for potentially picking at an emotional scab that is barely healed, if at all. I'm reminded that the Basque people have dealt with lots of real violence in my lifetime, and I worry that my nostalgic reference to the battle for Texas independence might have hit too close to home.

It's also quite possible that they were just repulsed by the notion of Texas in general. But the initial coming out as a Texan didn't freak them out. If they thought I was a hillbilly, I imagine they would have laughed or made fun of me. Maybe they thought I was with the tea party? I'm fairly used to being looked at like what I'm saying or doing is crazy, but at a time when maybe I actually wanted to make a connection with someone, my nonsense traveled halfway around the world to meet me. I cannot help but feel like I had this coming. All I can do is laugh and shake my head at myself.

Or maybe it just scared them out of context. As my roommate rightly observed, “The come and take it flag looks like a fucking gang tattoo.” 


She comes in for a hug. “Have a nice vacation.” The pained way she looked at me as we parted ways is a splinter I am still trying to dig out of my mind.

I wave at them as they leave the bar, “Agur, Isabelle.”


I come back the next day. La Cuchara de San Telmo has amazing kokoxtas, and I’m eating them in the bar, which is empty, because I’m there as soon as they open.

The bartender recognizes me now, “Kaixo, Texas.” He makes a finger-gun at me. Ha.

Against all odds, I had successfully communicated with people on the other side of the world for my first time. It was strangely refreshing, and like my interactions with most people in any language, a dark comedy of errors.

I can hear the waves crashing down the block. Once I’ve stuffed myself silly I’m going to stare at the black water for at least 30 minutes. The waves slam into the rocks with such convincing ferocity, it’s as if every drop of water in the world is acting in conjunction to climb the beach, over the sea wall, and destroy me. I am endlessly soothed by sitting on the wall, and watching the sea come at me (come and take it?).

I have to laugh to myself in the empty pinxto bar, remembering a conversation a guest and I had at the restaurant before I left:

“So you’re going on vacation to Spain? That’s awesome!”

“Yeah, I’m stoked.”

He leans in close, lowering his voice, “Are you going with anyone? Like your girlfriend or wife?”

“No. I’m going by myself. I think I need it. ”

He high fives me, his eyes narrow and his grin widens. “Good for you man. Haha!” He taps me on the arm,

“Why bring sand to the beach?!”

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Sweet Truth

You need to drink more sweet wines.

Wines that contain palpable sugar levels.

You have to do this.

Maybe you associate sweet wine with dessert, with sugary indulgence. You could not be further from the truth. Sweet wine’s greatest utility lies not in desserts, but in savory foods. Really savory foods.

When I was a little kid, I would look forward to waffles on Saturday morning. My mom would toast eggo waffles and then spread butter on the waffles, still warm. She would set the waffles in front of me, and I would unleash a biblical flood of syrup on the sinful earth that was my two waffles. I think I was 6 years old on the morning that my mom and dad were both sick in bed, too tired to make me waffles, at least on the schedule I was used to. I didn’t take it personally, and I took matters into my own hands.

I got the waffles, and I got them in the toaster without burning the house down. I spread the butter right into the little nooks of the waffles. I sat down and I opened the syrup floodgates. I took a bite, and I wasn’t old enough to understand what had happened in my mouth, but I may as well have been watching galaxies being born. I saw the big bang. I watched life begin and end over and over again over such an incomprehensibly long time that numbers don’t exist to quantify its staggering longness. I saw the horror of the dark heart of man, contrasted by the ineffable joy of existence. My pupils were thrown open like the suicide doors of an expensive sports car, and I was changed forever.

I used salted butter on accident.

Without knowing it concretely, I had just experienced the magic of sweet and savory happening at the same time in my mouth. I finished the waffles with gusto, and immediately transitioned to cartoons, whacked out of my mind on sugar and an unrealized epiphany. I forgot about the sublime purity of that moment, the mathematical constant of truth that I witnessed when I was six.

Then, on a rainy day off, fifteen years later, I sat down to a pretty unassuming meal: Kung-Pao chicken from Pei Wei, and a bottle of Dr. Pauly kabinett Riesling. I had no grandiose intentions for this meal, other than to get fed, and tie on the suggestion of a buzz while I do it. The total cost of this meal was approximately seventeen dollars. I take a bite of the chicken, tasty, probably loaded with MSG but whatever. I’m chewing, and pouring myself a glass of Riesling into a rocks glass. I took a sip, and instantly, I was torn from my dining room table, through time, to that moment when I was six years old. I stood, side by side with my younger self, and we stared into the center of the universe, the nucleus of creation itself.

“Do you know what this means?”

“It means that sweet wine fucking crushes savory food.”

“You're not supposed to say that word.”

“Shut the fuck up, six year old me.”

Flash forward to my kung pao and Riesling. I’m calling my girlfriend at work, I sound panicked. “OK so you stumbled across a good wine pairing, why are you freaking out?”

“No.” I’m catching my breath. “This is bigger than good. This is the truth.”

Sweet wine and intensely savory food is a gastronomic fission reaction that to this very day threatens to extract tears from my eyes every time it is done properly. The principles of sweet and savory, applied to food and wine pairing, is the greatest good I feel like I can consume.

Sweet wine is a handful of buckshot blessed by the last preacher on earth, fired into the black molten heart of the devil.

Consider some of the most prized gems of Houston dining: Bellaire. Hillcroft. Long Point. Our ethnic cuisine is some of the best in the United States. A lot of it is loaded with spice, bursting with Capsaicin and screaming with aromatic intensity. How do you tame those dragons with wine? You do it with acid, and you do it with fucking sugar. No I will not give you a list of dishes paired with recommendations. Ok here’s one: Pichot demi-sec vouvray with the papaya salad at Vieng Thai. That’s all you get. I am asking you to roll into Himalaya, to Otilia’s, to Que Huong with a bottle of sweet white wine and just trust me. Your brain will fall out of your skull.

lightly sweet

Consult your local wine professional today on a bottle of sweet wine that will deliver a flavor experience rivaling the euphoric intensity of pure heroin, with none of the horrifying side effects. They can guide you to exactly how much sweetness you want. Rattle off the dish that its going with, and they can fine tune the recommendation.

Sweet wine is the sword made by the old blacksmith who has lived his whole life under the boot of a world governed by tyranny and evil- the very evil you intend to eviscerate with the divine perfection of his last blade.

Our precious ethnic restaurants are not the only proving grounds for sweet wine. Lock your hands around a bottle of Donnhoff Kabinett, and pay the incredibly reasonable ten-dollar corkage at Paulie’s. Order the bucatini all'amatriciana. Take a bite of this considerably spicy pasta. Chase it with the wine. Use the surplus of complimentary napkins to wipe the tears away from your face as you sob, your mind barely able to survive its brush with infinity (at a total approximate cost of like, 50 dollars, including food, wine, and corkage). Don’t forget to buy a cookie.


Or hells bells, go to Central Market. Get a bag of Utz classic potato chips, and a bottle of Paolo Sarracco moscato d’Asti. Get some good marcona almonds. Get chex mix, or whatever high end analog they sell at CM. Get pretzels. All of these, with something bubbly, sweet, and uncomplicated, will bring you to your knees. They will bring your friends and family to their knees. The earth will tremble as the world’s population falls in unison to their knees from the inescapable truth: sweet wine goes with damn near everything, and we underestimate its power daily. 

very sweet

Or if you don’t feel like a do-it-yourself religious experience, go to Underbelly. Go to the Pass and Provisions. Go to Hugo's. talk to Matt, talk to Fred, talk to Travis, and talk to Sean. Tell them you want to trip the light fantastic and they will, with your permission, hit you with the semi-truck of flavor that is sweet wine. Talk to David at Uchi. Talk to Kat at Mark’s. Talk to Adele and Mike at 13 Degrees. They will light you up. Talk to Marcus at Ibiza. Talk to any of the wine professionals in the city, and we will show you the truth that we have known for a long time.

I miss the days that the deadliest somm to ever walk a floor, Antonio Gianola (AKA The Enabler), would push my mind to the brink with Madeira and fried chicken livers. With suckling pig and Kerpen two star. If there is justice in the world, if the truth really exists, he will once again join us on the field of battle.

Sweet wine is that shiny gleaming alien assault weapon that nobody knows how to use. As they close in, and all hope is lost, it hums to life. “What are you doing?” You point it at the wall of the ship, “making an exit” and depress the trigger.

And get ready for this: sweet wine is fucking delicious by itself. That’s right. It’s healthier and more natural than soda, which you probably drink. Maybe you don’t drink sugary sodas. But I’m willing to bet you drink at least one cocktail that is sweet, just because you saw Don Draper drinking it on television. Suddenly you’ve decided you’d rather have a tough looking tom collins than be caught with a glass of gewürztraminer. You’re living a double standard, and you’re missing out. You need to get your game face on, and start spending all of your money on sweet wine immediately. You need to take out high-interest unsecured loans to buy more sweet wine. You must pull complex, daring, highly illegal heists of priceless art and sell it on the black market, to finance the sweet wine addiction I am imploring you to pick up.

In a world where certainty is illusive, we need to be reminded of what little hard truth still exists. The kernel of truth that I am gingerly placing in your hands today, dear reader, is that sweet wine is one of the most useful and relevant alcoholic beverages that mankind has ever created.

I encourage you experience the riot of joy, the cold brilliant precision, of the truth.