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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Vegas....with Children

“Are you Crazy?”

That was my initial reaction when my brother first proposed that our two families along with our parents, plan a weekend trip to Las Vegas.

Flashing back to my 20’s and previous Vegas trips I recall there were absolutely no redeeming values that I could apply, nor want, to subject my family to. I remembered the annual pilgrimage to the MGM in September for the Frozen Fury Ice Hockey Game and the many antics and hi-jinks that were pulled with a stunning regularity with me and 20,000 other rabid hockey fans. I remember the weekend I vowed to only eat at Buffets and if no Buffet available would only eat fried Jalapeno Poppers. I remember doing the math and finding out that 2 hours worth of Vegas Bingo at 15 bucks meant I could actually consume at least 30 bucks worth of free drinks. I remember the time me and 3 of my “larger scaled” friends visited one of the cheaper Vegas Buffets and the look of horror on the managers face seeing me and 750 plus pounds of friend walk through the door. Somehow all of my memories of Vegas never quite meshed with the idea of bring my wife, and 2 boys ages 6 and 2, my mother and father, and brother’s family; another 3 boys ranging from 3-7. The whole idea sounded preposterous.

But having only been to the city twice in the last 8 years and figuring that Grandpa and Grandma could maybe watch the kids for a couple of evening hours and the idea of getting conjoined rooms….I rolled the dice on the idea and set forward. Hitting Sin City with 5 boys almost seemed like a bigger challenge then my quest to eat 100 Jalapeno Poppers. I couldn’t back down.

The drive up went well with me not hearing the first “Are we there yet?” until we were ½ way up the 91 freeway in Corona. We brought along a CD of “50 Favorite Children’s Songs” that while not exactly my idea of compelling driving music, at least kept their interest enough for us to hit Barstow.

Parking at the Barstow Outlet Center for the obligatory potty break, we also popped into the Old Navy Outlet. I have always felt the premise of the “outlet” nothing but a scam and in this case I was proved correct as the prices in Barstow were no better the foothill ranch location I had visited not one day before. A row of Vending Machines had the Kids asking me for quarters and I couldn’t help shake the feeling that quite possibly on our last day in Vegas it could very well be me asking them for quarters.

Knowing we still had a couple of hours drive….we picked up Burger King Happy Meals…something I would never approve of or do with any amount of regularity at home but anything that could possibly aid and abet a quiet and peaceful 2 hours plus remaining ride in this case made more the perfect sense.


Walking through the Flamingo to check in we noticed a large queue of people waiting in line with a semi large security presence. Walking closer to the action discovered that Marie Osmond was appearing in one of the Flamingo’s Shops on some type of promotional jaunt and signing autographs and pictures. Walking with my luggage a mere 5 yards away from her I bit my lip at the opportunity to ask her if she was still “a little bit country” or maybe try and launch some type of zinger claiming Jimmy was the most talented Osmond. I also couldn’t help but judge by the people waiting in line that several people must have made the commute from Utah and how Vegas is most certainly the polar opposite of Salt Lake. I am sure there were more then a handful of properly dressed down women in line who promptly planned on burning their shoes and clothing once back in Utah.

The Check-in line was non existent which was a welcome site, and being it still 2 o’clock was happy the front desk staff went ahead and gave us our room keys thus sparing us the extra 2 hour wait for the official check in time (We noticed in the same area 2 hours later that same check-in line was very long.) We were able to get 2 conjoined rooms and one additional room a bit further down the hall. Making our way up to the rooms and getting the luggage unpacked we heard a knock at the door and were roundly given a hearty greeting by my brothers two oldest boy ages 7 and 5 which was a welcome sight for my oldest who now had company his own age.

Getting into our swimsuits we had an hour plus of time left at the pool before it became Adults only. We headed down and found a nice shady spot and the water looked inviting with the weather being a perfect 95 degrees. I launched into the water only to be met with what can only be described as a slightly unsettling briskness. It wasn’t cold to the point where you wanted to jump out immediately but it was certainly cold enough where “refreshing” soon became “uncomfortable.”

We went down the waterslide a handful on times and while the kids weren’t complaining about the water temperature, grandma noticed my oldest sons lips were starting to turn blue and he was started to shiver a bit. Late June in Vegas with shivering and blue lips? We decided to return to the room to rest up a bit.

Later that night walking the strip it felt good to be in the night air but a bit weird keeping the perpetual head count making sure we had 5 kids with us at all times. It helped we brought 2 strollers but what I would have given to have a 5 seat model.

We found a restaurant at one of the casinos that was offering 15 dollar prime rib dinners. We inquired about the wait time and upon finding out it was an hour plus wait for a table, we knew it was not going to be possible for 5 hungry kids, thus we had to schlep the kids through the casino floor before finding settling on a food court with Subway and yet another Burger King. Making matters worse was the inconvenient location which found us situated smack dab in the middle of an area that was packed with people playing Beer Pong and the restrooms and what seemed like a myriad of 20-somethings staggering to and fro between the two stations. I did my best to keep the pace of the meal upbeat through the dinner in fear of some beer pong victim tripping on one of the kids strollers or at worst stumbling onto on of the kids. It certainly wasn’t the best place to be feeding the kids but in our situation we really didn’t have any other option. A far cry from the previous Vegas days of yore that saw me frequenting the Bellagio’s Seafood Buffet and ordering fine wine by the glass.

The next day we decided to take the kids to Circus Circus for the breakfast Buffet and the Kids area. The buffet was much better than I remembered circa 1994. Back in the day it had all of the charm and elegance of a high school cafeteria. This time the food appeared to be a notch or two above that labeled “for institutional use only”, and the kids loved the Sponge Bob 4D ride as well as the Air Hockey games. The table was not working right with very little air coming from the table and a puck that didn’t want to glide. Though they didn’t seem to mind the slower pace of the game I finally had to stand in the middle of the table and help the puck along to get to the other side. Good Times.

That Night saw us make our reservation at an Italian place my brother recommended called Batista’s Hole in the Wall. It was sharing an unimpressive strip mall with a liquor store/beer bar and from the outside really looked like a dump. My brother promised it was surprisingly good and how it was an old school style with the menus posted on the wall. Oddly enough, I have never had a bad meal at a place that had the Menu written on the wall and this was no different. All you can drink bottomless wine carafes wasn’t going to hurt my scoring scale either. As mentioned previously, it’s old school Vegas in its purist form complete with autographed pictures a plenty on the wall with various celebrities and the owner whom I presumed to be Mr. Batista smiling and striking the same pose in almost all of the pictures. The Wall we were seated by I spotted the Smother Brothers, Shirley MacLean and Mike Tyson and one picture of Al Pacino that bore no signature. Either it’s a law that all Italian places must have a picture of Al Pacino or he ate there and was unhappy with his meal. Either way, the garlic bread came and I enjoyed that the bread had clumps of real minced garlic and parsley atop a large jumbo sized style Italian roll sliced into large portions. The soup and salad were passable….nothing horrible but not exactly the freshness offered up by the Spaghetti Bender or even Olive Garden for that matter though I have to trust that to memory since I haven’t stepped foot in an olive garden in over 5 years. The Chicken Parmigiana was good but the breading came off of the chicken not the worst thing that could happen but also not a sign of top notch parm in my book. Did I mention that all meals came with free wine? Somehow I still couldn’t help but wonder if I should have brought a bottle from home and asked about the corking fee.

And there was entertainment as well when an 80 something year old man who probably weighed 1 lb for every year of his age, came by the table and asked in a thick Italian accent where we were from. When we said OC he immediately busted out his best accordion version of “It’s a Small World” much to the chagrin of the large party seated next to us. The grimace on their faces was very recognizable and I can only assume they must be Annual Pass Holders for Disneyland; for it was the same grimace I get on my face every time I’m at the Park and faced with the very real prospect of having to go on the ride and hear the song played ad nauseum for a time span seemingly longer then the drum solo on Ina Gadda Da Vida.

After the dinner we took a leisurely stroll down Las Vegas blvd just in time to see the water show at the Bellagio. It was a beautifully done, exquisitely choreographed fountain show that was timed perfectly with some classical piano musical piece that got more then its fair hare of its shares of oohs and aahs as burst of water were being shot 100 feet in the air. After it ended and a meek round of applause came from the crowd with my 2 ½ year old looking at me with a big smile and the comment “that was great fireworks.”

Our next and presumably last day before driving back was spent packing and hitting up one final buffet at the Excaliber. By this time the grandparents and my brother’s family went their own way back to OC and being we didn’t have a chance to take the kids to the Fun Court at the Excalibur we stopped by. Truth be told, the fun court was badly dilapidated with none of the change dispensers working and most of the games in sorry shape. I found an attendant to break a roll of quarters and mentally noted how this was the first quarter roll I saw since entering town. The Coin-less Vegas is certainly cleaner and easier with no constant need for handy wipes….although looking at the condition of the games certainly made me want to wash my hands ASAP after leaving the area. Hitting the Buffet we started discussing things we didn’t do and things we should have done. The M&Ms Store in particular was something we thought we would have all enjoyed. Discussing what we should have done over prime rib, shrimp cocktails, and arguably the best Mac and Cheese I’d ever had, I thought about staying the extra day.

Debating with the wife what would be a fair room price to stay the extra day we decided any sub $50 rate would be worth staying and really worth not getting back just in time to hit the 4 O’clock freeway rush hour traffic. I could almost see us sitting in traffic in front of Ontario Mills. Using one of the in-house courtesy phones I called the front desk and after a bit of negotiating in the form of asking about a AAA discount-I landed a 40 Buck room….we stayed.

We enjoyed the pool, it wasn’t as tropical as the Flamingo and didn’t have as many water slides but the water temp was much more enjoyable. I took my 2 year old down the waterslide once or twice, which warmed my heart in the form of a true Vegas style father/son moment. We lounged a bit on one of the chairs and even sat in the Jacuzzi for a couple of minutes. It was nice to see the wide open Vegas sky

We washed up and headed downtown hitting the M&M and Coke shops as well as some of the other kitsch shops on the strip at a much more leisurely pace then the rate we moved with 5 kids the previous day. The M&M shop had over 20 colors of regular M&Ms and a nice selection of Almond, Peanut Butter, and some other Gourmet flavors. They charged by the pound and after the family went about filling various bags of M&M ended up paying over 20 bucks. Any other time that might have seemed like a waste of money and badly overpriced; but being the last day of our Vegas vacation I was willing to roll with it.



Winding down the night the wife and I took turns with the kids in the room while the other enjoyed the few remaining Casino hours. I agreed to let her go first and was happy when she brought back a cash voucher for 40 dollars she had won on a nickel slot. Now keep in mind back in the day a penny or nickel slot meant you would play anywhere from 3 to 25 cents per pull but no one ever accused the powers that be who are calling the shots in Vegas weren’t money savvy. Today’s Penny Slots have some Machines that have at least 50 different play lines per pull with a 10 cent per pull maximum, in other words if you wanted to play the max on some of the penny slots you were looking at 5 bucks a pull.

“You can come back when you double our money” she jokingly said handing me the $40 dollar slip. I am pretty sure she expected me to lose it all and quite frankly so was I. I was actually preparing ways to use her half joking remark into an excuse to come back to the room at 3am.

After sauntering out the to casino on my own I also managed to parlay a couple of pulls on a nickel slot including a couple of back to back spins that landed me on the bonus screen. It kept paying and paying some more and my only qualm being I had to use the restroom and the fact that the one time I had a lot of credits in the machine also coincided with the one time the Cocktail Server managed to go MIA. I couldn’t have been to upset overall however as it was my last night; I had money in my wallet, and could back to the room having doubled the Wife’s winnings. My rule of Vegas has always been if you come back with a twenty dollar bill in your wallet-you were a winner. I went back to the room and slept a long satisfying sleep…after all, I brought the whole family to Vegas and not only had a great time, but they had a great time, and I didn’t lose all of my money. That’s always an accomplishment.

Waking up the next day, grabbing a quick shower, and checking out via the TV’s self checkout, we grabbed a cup of coffee from the nearest snack bar for the quick wake up boost needed to load the luggage to Van and then one more final stop to hit up a McDonalds near the 15 freeway for some breakfast and to top off the fuel tank. The drive back was surprisingly smooth; I was very glad not to face the Sunday or Monday traffic I’ve heard has become a problem and especially glad to know that I would most likely beat the rush hour traffic as well.

We made one final stop at the Bob Big Boy in Barstow. I promised the kids we would share a hot fudge cake if they behaved. The Big Boy Combo was just like I remembered and much to my pleased surprise they were running a Strawberry Ice Cream Hot Fudge Cake that was a very nice treat and great way to end the prolonged weekend. We missed traffic all the way home arriving back in South OC well before rush hour and gave me a couple of hours to rest and do my best to ignore the fact that within hours I would find myself back in the office and once again, facing reality.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

I have found a new home! Albatros Mexican Food

I have been in Lake Forest now for almost 4 years and always lamented there was no real good Mexican places like Huntington or Long Beach. Tried this place last night and loved it! Its what you'd expect for a hole in the wall but the portions or good, the meat flavored nicely, as ordering a couple of extra flour tortillas was surprised to see they gave me some of the super sized tortillas. I'm a believer...may not be the best in OC but certainly the best is Lake Forest and this area. I'm almost tempted to give 5 stars. The green and red salsas were spicy without being over the top, the tortillas are grilled and stuffed until they get that slightly translucent appearance to them that I love with patches of semi burnt areas. The carnitas was seasoned perfectly and flakey and tender. Its open 24 hours which means nothing to me these days but its a nice option.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Copper Salmon; the noblest of all pink fleshed fish

Had quite a weekend that featured some high quality steaks at Costco, A nice slab of Copper River Salmon, and a fine wine in the Chateau Ste Michelle Indian Wells 2005 Merlot. Everything was so amazing its hard for me to pick a place to start. I may as well go straight to the Salmon. We had so much food that we elected to simply outright smoke one slab and the other I got to take home for the Sunday BBQ. Using the biggest, heartiest slab of Salmon I used a simple brine and a Ziploc in the fridge for roughly 4 or 5 hours. I would have liked to done it overnight but alas being short notice the 4-5 hours sufficed. My brine was nothing fancy, Sea Salt, Brown Sugar, Cracked Black Pepper no more no less. After that it was straight onto the smoker where it sat for roughly 3 hours at a low heat using pecan chunks for the smoke. This was the first time we smoked a salmon of this quality as well as being the first time using the brine technique. I couldn't help but think that smoking a high quality Copper River Salmon may have been like using Filet Mignon for Hamburger Helper but at the same time-why not go for broke? I also smoked some Olive Oil Saffron Lamb Chops as well as some Sharp Cheddar and Jack Cheese for appetizers.

The next night we had leftover steaks and a leftover slab of Salmon...I was so dissapointed that I had to spend Sunday Night BBQing. Add Sarcasm Smiley right here.
The Steaks were over the top but delicious enough, and the salmon-lets just say you cant go wrong with Copper River Salmon and Chef Pauls Magic Salmon Seasoning. You simply cant-you cant put on enough of the seasoning and barring one drastically overcooking the salmon its a perfect meal. Notice the garlic clove sauteeing in steak fat in the middle of the grill. Nutritious and Delicious!

And finally since I know I havent done a wine review in a while I picked up a bottle of the Chateau Ste Michelle Indian Wells 2005 Merlot. Amazing wine. A nice oak flavored nuanced by a gentle, chewy but slight cherryish overtone. Some reviews had it as very good but just short of excellent. I can agree with that whole heartidly but for 15 bucks a bottle I think it an excellent buy. Maybe the best sub 20 bottle Ive had since the Ghost Pines.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Thats The Way Ahi Ahi I like it......

The Local Gourmet Market...aka Sprouts had a pretty good deal on Ahi Tuna that I couldn't pass up. I marinated my steak in Worcestershire, Garlic Powder, and Olive Oil while the Wife went with the Japanese Miso Green Onion style. Truth be told I'll let her do them both next time as I preferred the Asian infused flavor of hers as opposed to mine. Not saying the Worcestershire was bad-but hers was 10 times better bar none. The nutty flavor of the Sesame Oil in conjunction with the Miso is just a cant miss.

Some other pics I from a couple of weeks ago was the first Cedar Plank Salmon of the summer. Sadly, it wasnt the Copper River variety and making matters worse, the fact it was actually Farm Raised Salmon which I generally shy away from. It was from Canada though so I can fool myself into think that Canadian Farm Raised Salmon must be better quality then that of the US brethren.