Yelp and the Art of Marketing

Poor Saint John’s still doesn’t have any businesses worth going to, except bars. This is hardly an exaggeration. They’ve got weird old Patty’s Home Plate—one-half retro lunch counter, one-half flea market—a Mcmenamins, a vegan market/lunch spot, a couple of brewpubs that serve little food, and a hippie, crunchy, punky restaurant. The only place I can ever think of to go is The Fishwife, which always seems to be closed, but which is the best seafood restaurant in town.

One amongst their number, a woman of apparently heroic ambition, would like to rebuild a historic hotel called Central Hotel, and she’s bought the building and put a sign outside that says Central Hotel, but it’s pretty confusing since it still just looks like the old Dad’s Lounge, a dive. They allow kids now, and they’ve put together a menu that includes latkes with lox, and a lamb burger, and a cocktail list with Punt y Mes, Weller bourbon, and nocello, which are some of the preordained ingredients for restaurant success. But man, that interior, and exterior, and the doorway with the cracked glass, and the video crack with the neck tattoo dude who needs a spit cup for his chaw—these are liabilities. Have these people heard of brand damage? I’m a hillbilly with a nine-year-old laptop and a website called Gangster Of Food, and I’ve heard of brand damage.

The idiots over on Yelp (not the ones who’ve kindly granted me permission to use their photos, the other ones) they’ve probably heard of brand damage, and they are doing their very mightiest to inflict it upon this hapless real estate agent who dreams of turning her property into a bona fide hotel and family-friendly restaurant. Yelpers have given the Central Hotel an average of 3.5 stars, and have made some very critical remarks besides. Oh my god! The fries are from a bag! Get over it Yelpers; you’ve sung praise to greater indignities.

I don’t know if you know this, but 3.5 starts on Yelp is pretty bad, except in the cases where it’s great, and it’s only great when it’s obvious that the entitled little honkies just don’t get it, which is fairly common. This time I’d say that the Yelp system worked out perfectly despite itself. The place deserves an honest 3.5 (okay maybe three) stars considering what a disjointed fucking mess it is. I like the neck tattoo dude. I like the carpet, and the paneling and the stained drop ceiling. I love the cut out piece of cardboard on the soffit over the bar listing the draft selection. These are check-check-check in my little book. The drinks are good! Weller with nocello—I’m into it. The food is…problematic, but fine. I don’t expect people with a background in property sales to understand food like I or my readers do. They’re like: “Hummus…check. Burger…check. Sausage…check. Chicken sandwich…check. Alright, the menu looks great; I think you guys are ready to move into the kitchen. Congratulations!”

But the food—despite some obvious flaws like the chicken sandwich whose actual chicken component is suffocated by the ciabatta sandwich component, and the pigs in a blanket, whose pigs have the savor of Hebrew National, while the blanket is little more than than a sage-laden cracker—isn’t really too bad. It’s at least as good as the overhyped, marketing-driven slop that Yelpers have driven me to before. What’s a really overhyped restaurant in the Rose City? Too numerous to count, but let’s take Kenny and Zuke’s for example:

The pastrami, to be fair, sucks. People go nuts for this shit, but I’m telling you now that any single one of you could prepare a beef brisket pot roast with sodium nitrite, put it on bread, and you would have approximately the same thing. This isn’t just an aesthetic consideration. This isn’t just, as the pastrami pariah Nick Zukin would have me believe, my modern, industrial sensibilities talking. Yelpers love(d) this place, although they have gotten considerably more critical of late.

The whole media establishment love(d) this place: The Oregonian, Willamette Week, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, the list goes on…, and I say that there is only one factor that accounts for its rabid popularity: Brand Strength. It’s at the bottom of the Ace Hotel (where I once stayed as a destitute transient, only it was called the Ben Stark back then), and it’s done up like a jewish deli, but sleeker. It’s Katz’s without the rough edges and somewhat worse pastrami! What more could the hipster republic ask for?

Take heed, restaurateurs. Take notice. How about Bunk? East Coast sandwiches with chef pedigree. The phenomenal popularity of this place had escaped my understanding until recently. Actually, it’s improved significantly since the early days, but if it hadn’t been for those line-out-the-door early days, they wouldn’t have five or six locations today. Marketing. A sort of underground, “oh here’s the dude from Ripe, worked for Mario Batali way back in the day. My friend says he’s really cool,” marketing, but that’s the best marketing of all! Marketing that don’t look like marketing.

Speaking of insider marketing, let’s look at some projects by Chefstable (where does the chef end, and the stable begin?): Lardo, Block and Tackle, Roe, Pok Pok! Phenomenal! How do they create so many hits?! Are they the Phil Specter of restaurants? Marketing. These are some very good restaurants, don’t get me wrong (oh please restaurant bosses—don’t get me wrong. I’m sure I’ll be back begging for alms again someday), but are they the very best restaurants that have opened in their respective fields? Maybe, sometimes. Mainly though, if you open a restaurant in The Stable, you get the very best hay that money can buy, and by hay I mean marketing. Eater and Portland Magazine will say nice things about you in advance of your opening. The guy at the Oregonian will be notified to put on his prescription secret agent glasses and and come on down to darken your doorway. You get the very best shot at it that money connections can buy.

So, do I do anything besides gripe about the success of others? Some restaurants are wildly successful; what’s the problem? The problem is that marketing is the monkey wrench in the meritocracy. For every new Bunk Sandwiches/Lardo/Pok Pok that opens, we lose another business that might be as good or even better, and give us a greater range of options for dining. Because the foodie masses will gladly queue around the block for an average meatball hoagie with rocker chef pedigree, we lose all sorts of other places —RIP Döner Kebab, Flogenes, Hillbilly Bento, Sauvage…—that broaden the palate. The gastronomic terrain becomes more predictable—”oh is that another Pok Pok opening up? Thank god, I won’t have to travel two and a half miles to for my Ricker fix anymore”—and less exciting. In my estimation, more diversity is nearly always a positive thing, and homogeneity is unequivocally evil.

So, to put this back on track: Would-be hoteliers of Saint John’s, I admire your ambition in restoring this eyesore of a dive (although I actually think the current facade is kind of cute) to it’s Gilded Age glory. And I really want you to succeed, if only so that I can take my daughter someplace nice after a day’s hiking in Forest Park or Sauvie Island. But I think there may be something you’re overlooking about this town: marketing rules everything. If the construction were done, and included lots of reclaimed wood, exposed rafters, and vintage chandeliers, and you had contracted a chef from say New York or San Francisco, it wouldn’t matter if you served fried horse poo sandwiches, people Yelpers would line up and praise your authenticity. You could be on the way to a hotel empire in no time at all. Imagine: the New Seasons Market of hotels. It could be such that the sustainability-minded traveler hadn’t even a choice in Portland anymore.

I’m telling you right now that this thing will follow you through construction, until the opening of your big, beautiful hotel. I really hope you succeed, but right now you gotta think about your brand. And fix that food, even Yelpers can tell it’s off.

 

P.S. to pastrami charlatans, hand sliced don’t mean thick as a textbook. I slice meat so thin by hand, I wrote this blog post with piece of lox on my glasses.

 

7 Other Donuts

Flickr user Ewan Munro. Thanks Ewan!

Flickr user Ewan Munro. Thanks Ewan!

I’ve been busy writing listicles is why I’ve been gone for so long. That and Christmas. That and I was preparing a real fire and brimstone sermon to rain down upon you people about the ethics of eating meat and, after struggling with it for two weeks, I decided ethics was way above my pay grade. If you’re wondering if it’s okay to eat meat, just look in your heart, then look in your maw, and you’ll find all you need to know.

My last published list was about donuts. I struggled with the title, as I really wanted to say something about the pink boxes and stuff, but feared the retaliation of the social media mob. So I just went with “7 Other Portland Donuts,” which the fools at Listicle Central lengthened to “7 Other SPECTACULAR Portland donuts,” which, besides the absurdity of it, doesn’t even capture the spirit of my title.

Photo Courtesy of Yelp User Courtesy of Yelp user Tammy G. Yes, I actually asked for and received permission to use this. photohttp://www.yelp.com/user_details?userid=N0durDai4PQJSkVEvO9QvQ I hope you're reading this cheeseburger blog  blogger girl.

Before you even ask , yes, I’ve been to Annie’s. Photo Courtesy of Yelp user Tammy G. Yes, I actually asked for and received permission to use this photo. 
I hope you’re reading this, cheeseburger blogger girl.

I really did just taste and comment upon each of the donut shops I tried, although it was far from neutral. Bottom of the pack was Blue Star, whose donuts share some qualities with matzoh. I just tried that guy’s fried chicken shack last week too, and it was an even bigger disappointment than his dusty ass donuts.

I tried to make it to Delicious Donuts, but they were closed due to scarcity of donuts. Pip’s kind of disappoints me after this donut ordeal. They’re so gentle and soft. Annie’s is still fine. But the very best donuts of all, the donuts that I hold in my mind’s tongue to savor when I’m lonely, come from Coco Donuts. I never craved donuts before. That’s because a donut never really picked me up like that. A donut never really believed in me.   

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Cell phone photo of my new girlfriend. Later Annie.

 

Coleslaw, it ain’t 1996!

The best thing about this blog is it’s utter lack of direction and focus. I just get on the computer and write about whatever has seized me with such force that I feel compelled to electronically log it for posterity, as if the electronic written word will still exist in posterity. Today, it’s the secrets of coleslaw. I’ve had your coleslaw, and it sucks.

Don’t feel bad—mine did too. I’d made mushy slaw, too-chunky slaw, too-sour slaw, too-creamy slaw, too-rich slaw. I tried salting and draining like Tom Douglas suggests. That slaw is way too rich. I went through the chunky, hand-cut phase back before it was cool, and decided that what I do not enjoy wrestling with my tongue is big chunks of raw cabbage. I went through a box grated cabbage phase, because I’ve decided that I’m really old-fashioned, but you still have the problem of mushiness and wateriness. I wanted a slaw that was crisp and refreshing, but with that traditional sweet/sour/creamy balance.

Fancy vinegars I’ve tried. I probably got more fancy vinegars that you do, and none are right. Heinz white distilled has got the straightforward acetic acid kick I want. It lets the cabbage and carrot sweetness shine through without ostentatiously announcing itself, trying to make everything into something it’s not. Same goes for the sweetener: granulated white sugar doesn’t put on airs. Honey is way too aromatic. We’re trying to make a cohesive whole, not slam a bunch of stuff together in a bowl like fancy chefs. We’re not trying to be clever. We’re trying to be happy and satisfied.

The fat is more complicated. Mayonnaise is essential for that palate-coating creaminess, but it’s a little one-dimensional. Buttermilk is pretty good, but it’s kind of assertive with funk, and it gets a little thin with the vinegar. I like the dressing to really cling to the cabbage, even when it starts to give up it’s water. Sour cream is cloying. Although laughably nontraditional, plain, full-fat yogurt is perfect. I usually go maybe a little heavier mayo than an even split.

The biggest challenge is still the cabbage itself. It does have too much water, but salting it and wringing it dry makes an overwhelmingly rich slaw, and it still gets mushy. Coleslaw is practically synonymous with crispness in my imagination, so I took a lesson from the quick picklers of yore. I have a bunch of pickling lime from my homemade mineral water projects, and that’s what lime—Ca(OH)2, not the fruit—is for, making vegetables crunchy. The USDA recommends against using lime in pickling since it lowers the pH, and makes the process more risky, but coleslaw don’t need to keep for but a few days at most.

Those plates, those are  lime crystals.

Those plates, those are lime crystals.

So here’s what I do now: I slice the cabbage and carrots thin and long, by hand, since I’ve had some decent hand-cut slaws more recently. I salt the cabbage well (maybe two tablespoons salt per head) and let it sit for a half hour before squeezing gently to get some of the excess water out. I don’t want to bruise the fuck out of it and make it impossible to crisp up. Then I put the cabbage into a bowl with a few cups of cold water and a tablespoon of pickling lime, and let it sit in there for fifteen minutes or so. Then I drain it and spin it. The cabbage is now crisp as glass. Careful.

Toss that with the dressing. I do mine with maybe a tablespoon+ of mayo, one of yogurt, two teaspoons of vinegar and a tablespoon of sugar. I’m really not sure—I’m just eyeballing and tasting. I feel it doesn’t really matter anyway because if I did measure carefully and post recipes, people would just complain that it was “too sweet!” or “too fatty!” or “too sour!” Make it the way you like it. I’m pretty sure that’s some 1996 way that involves citrus and honey and olive oil, and no mayo, just don’t bring that mess to my barbecue. I’m totally over 1996.

Look at that cabbage, still got integrity after a whole day.

Look at that cabbage, still got integrity after a whole day.

 

Squirrel Benediction

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I finally took the leap and fried up a batch of squirrel—gray city squirrel harvested from my backyard. I’ve been halfheartedly killing them for a while now because I hate them and everything they stand for, except free lunch. It’s clear from the little bites taken from each and every piece of unripe fruit on the trees that the squirrels expect a free lunch.

I’d been watching them from the kitchen, climbing up into the trees, eating all the figs and persimmons, digging their little walnut stashes all throughout my raised beds, where they might return sometime in the spring to dig their booty, carelessly tossing my seedlings aside. I was helpless as a baby in the sewer, since my .20 caliber Sheridan Blue Streak blew a gasket a few months ago. It sat impotent in the garage, as I stood at the window.

Sheridan Blue streak in its natural environment.

Sheridan Blue Streak in its natural environment.

But thanks to the good people at Ollie Damon’s (not the counter dude, he’s a dick), I got my long arm back, working better than new. It was time to rain hellfire on these vicious little rodentia. And I did. But after a few carcasses tossed carelessly into the city compost, guilt began to gnaw at the frugal, white trash conscience that steers me fecklessly through this life. It was time to do as I like to imagine my hillbilly forebears did, and take advantage of the bounty of wild game right in my backyard. I’ve got hunting grounds—I’m like a fucking redneck baron over here!

For all my big talk about the squirrels I’ve killed, and the feasts I have planned, squirrel eating has been more concept than execution around here. My brother and I shot a couple a few years back and tried to braise them with wild mushrooms. After 18 hours of simmering in their own juice in the dutch oven, they were tough as rats, and inky black for some reason. Later, my brother turned a couple of them into a pot of rillettes, and brought it to thanksgiving dinner. Everybody, even the East Coasters, grubbed on that.

Still, I’m not trying to spend an hour killing and cleaning a tiny little rodent so I can spend another 2 hours cooking up a quarter pound of toast spread—but after the turkey slaughter, I was on a spree.

So, a week ago, I shot two in a day (and I still remember that day with fondness), and said, “well that’s a damn feast!” The first one was hard to clean, and I got so much fur stuck to his flesh membrane after about 10 minutes of incompetent hacking that I gave up and threw him out. I went to throw out the second one, but fortunately remembered that, despite the situation, I was a modern person. And modern people have You Tube. This guy skins a squirrel in a minute. I saw that and ran out of excuses. It took me about 5 minutes.

Then I learned from the comments (I know, right!?) that if you get the squirrel wet before you skin it, the fur doesn’t stick. Then I watched this guy fry a couple of squirrels on a range in the little kitchen he has set up in his workshop. Fucking genius, especially the part at the end where he gets up in the camera so you can see how easily he pulls the meat off the bone with his teeth. You gotta watch that part (25:29).

The wife had some important professional-type stuff to do this evening, leaving me with the child. So I took those squirrels out (they’d been marinating in garlic, oregano, and pepper for a few days), dredged them in 50/50 flour/cornstarch seasoned with Coleman’s and cayenne, and fried them in lard for a half hour. We had butter beans and coleslaw, fried morels (frozen from last season), and fried squirrel with Criolla Sella hot sauce. Squirrel was benediction. Squirrel tasted like a sacrament, but moister than a communion wafer. Next time, I’ll probably brine it in buttermilk for a day. Actually, next time, I’m gonna sous vide it. Not because it needs high technology to be delicious, just because I want to sully that technology with my tree rat.

Looks like I fried all the cutest things at Disneyland!

Looks like I fried all the cutest things at Disneyland!

I did end up tossing the livers and hearts because they sat in the fridge a little too long. Next time, I’m thinking about making a little bourbon squirrel paté. I also did not eat the brains, ’cause I’m slightly afraid of the squirrel Creutzfeld-Jakobs. Although now I’m reading further and the whole thing seems a little like a panic parade designed to steer traditional eaters toward more economic and socially acceptable eating patterns. Like they did with that creole pig in Haiti. Don’t be scared people, don’t let ’em take away your birthright. Eat some squirrel.

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