Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Road Trip Recap, Part III - Seeing Red, The Madhouse on Madison

Previous Recaps: Part I | Part II

Being part of the Original Six brotherhood has some advantages: Logos that have stood the test of time, unparalleled history (both good and bad), a veritable who's who of hockey greats and iconic sweaters.  Sometimes, I take this for granted.  A midweek matchup against Columbus or Nashville just cannot ever come close to the juice one gets when the Bruins take on one of their Original Six brethren.

With the Rangers, Canadiens and Maple Leafs all in the same conference, we get to see those teams two (NYR) or three (MTL, TOR) times a year at home, guaranteed.  But when it comes to the Western Conference siblings, Detroit and Chicago, we might get to see them every other year at best due to NHL scheduling.

As I said earlier in Part i of my recap, Heather and I had first deigned on going to a Bruins/Blackhawks game a couple of seasons ago, but the logistics just didn't work out.  In the 2010 season, the Bruins hosted the Blackhawks at home.  So our next chance for a Windy City showdown was this year.

Fast forward, then, to October 15th as the defending Stanley Cup champions found themselves taking on the Blackhawks as we made our way to our first road trip of the season.  Our first time at the United Center, we were beyond excited for some Saturday night hockey, midwest style.  Let's see how it played out.

You Can't Get There From Here

Oh, but you can.

After we finished up our tour of the Willis (Sears) tower, we didn't have enough time to head back to the hotel, so we decided to go straight to the stadium instead.  We headed over towards the El, but the locals, seeing that we were all decked out in our Black and Gold regalia, suggested that the bus might be better (and quicker) option.  Thanks to the fine folks at the Chicago Transit Authority, we were able to hop on the #20 bus at the corner of Wells and Madison and shoot right over to the United Center.  Unlike my beloved Boston, Chicago is laid out as a grid and the public transportation system is far more reliable, so moving around the city is incredibly easy.

We somehow got off one stop earlier than we should have (we would have been dropped off right outside the Stadium), but it was only a two minute walk and we were able to get some quality camera shots along the way.

A Shared Kinship of Sorts

We arrived before the stadium gates opened which allowed us to mingle a bit with a bunch of the fans who were lined up outside.  There were a bunch of fellow Bruins fans so we exchanged hi-fives and general pleasantries with them as we milled about.

Now, having been to away games in Montreal, Toronto and both eastern New York venues, I've steeled myself a bit when it comes to dealing with opposing fans.  For the most part, the vast majority of people are decent and respectful, but there's always a few bad apples in the bunch.  I've borne the brunt of taunts in the last row of the blue seats at Madison Square Garden as the B's were eviscerated 7-0 by the Rangers on St. Paddy's day.  I've enjoyed been sworn at in French from upset Habs fans as the Bruins took two points in Montreal on St. Paddy's Day. I've suffered the indignity of being taunted by a bunch of 12 year old girls outside the Air Canada Center after Phil Kessel potted the game winner for the Leafs in shootout on my birthday.  And, by far the worst experience was in Long Island as the boys in the spoked B sweaters were handed a beating by the Islanders and the "fans" spewed the most vile and profane comments at us that I'd ever heard at a sporting event.

It goes without saying that I take an overly cautious approach when I engage fans of the other team.  I try to be respectful, reading and reacting rather than being open up front.  If I sense that some people are up for some good natured jousting, I'll go ahead and give it to them, fully expecting something thrown back at me.  But I've also learned not to let my guard down completely.

The old school satin jacket lends major
street cred to one's hockey knowledge
As we waited outside the United Center, random Chicagoans would come us and converse with us.  Perhaps it was our mutual admiration of guys named Esposito, our perceived insights on Theo Espstein or just their instictive good natured midwestern friendliness, but these folks we downright nice to us for the most part. It was weird as much as it was fun.  Us hardened New Englanders are just not used to it.  Everything a stereotypical New Yorker is to us, these guys were the diametric opposite.

We had people come up to us to talk about the old time game from the 60's, sharing cup victory experiences and our respective crops of youngsters on our teams.  It was beyond refreshing to be able to carry out a conversation about hockey with knowledgable fans.  They knew their history as well as a large part of ours and vice versa.

Once the doors opened, Heather and I headed in and took our time walking around the place.  Aside from a few innocuous jeers (to be expected), there was a genuine sense of welcome in the building.  It was fun.  I had a number of Blackhawks fans who can up to me and thanked me (as if I was an ambassador for the B's) for dispatching the Canucks in the Stanley Cup final. I actually had one guy shake my hand when he thanked me.  Apparently, they really hate the Canucks (though I'm winning to bet they hate the Red Wings even more). In turn, I thanked them back for knocking off the Flyers in their moment of ultimate success. In doing so, we sorta kinda bonded.  It was weird, but it also made me realize something: I don't hate these people.  Sure, they are rooting for the other team, but they aren't obnoxious and acting like idiots.  I only hope I can reciprocate the kindness the Chicago fans extended to me.

The Madhouse on Madison

When you can bring the noise
you get to be a bit boastfu
Much like Philadelphia, the arena is on the south side of town; not quite the outskirts, but away from the downtown core of the city.  It is surrounded by parking lots and low rise buildings, a far cry from the neighborhood settings of the Garden or the Bell Center.

And let's face it - this place is downright huge.  It completely dwarfs what we have.  Besides having a capacity of over 22,000 (almost 5,000 more than back home), the United Center has wide concourses, an additional level of premium seats and standing room loactions that ring the building behind the upper balcony seating area.  By the time you are in the back of the 300 level sections, you are pretty far from the ice surface.  But there are no obstructed views and there's plenty of space to move around.  And you're going to need to get up at some point: the seats are crowded as hell. Even someone as short as I am had issues with keeping my knees from banging the seats in front of me.

But the place has a huge drawback: the sound system.  By far the absolute worst one I've experienced at any modern arena I've been to.  We're talking "Charlie Brown teacher" territory.  Barely audible when the crowd was quiet.  And the music was a huge letdown as well.  The organ was pumped through the speakers, rendering it pretty much useless.  And the musical selection was lacking in quality.  Add in the three piece rock band that would play standard hard rock classics from Van Halen and AC/DC during stoppages in play was really pedestrian.  In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor gripe and it honestly didn't detract from my overall experience.

Hey, only 11 more to go
As an added bonus, there is a display case with all six of the Bulls' Larry O'Brien trophies from the NBA championships.  Which is nice, if you're a Bulls fan.  Which I'm not.

I discussed the myriad of food options available  at the United Center in Part I of my recap.  I should also mention that there are a number of standalone bars and lounges scattered all over the building, some of which feature standing areas with views of the ice do you can watch the game while inbibing your favorite tasty libation.  And these are available to all season ticket holders, not just the high rollers in the premium seats.

Shoe shine, sir?
Did I mention they have a shoe shine station as well?

A tremendously tremendous idea
And in one final touch of greatness, all the ushers are supplied with miniature stop signs with a picture of local fan favorite, former player and current national broadcast analyst Ed Olczyk on them for the purpose of stopping people from entering the seating areas while the puck is in play.  And for the most part, the fans stay seated during the game, waiting for the whistle before getting up.  Yet another NHL arena that gets it while the TD Garden continues to show disregard and disrespect for their patrons.

Oh, and they have a bunch of banners hanging from the rafters, as benefitting an arena that is home to two storied franchises.  There are banners for the Hawks four Stanley Cups and the Bulls' six championships as well as banners for retired players for each team.  They also have banners for Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause, the architects behind the Bulls' dynasty.  As a nice touch, the Bulls banners actually have the names of the players on each championship team around the border of their respective banner.  There are also banners for each of the Hawks' various division and conference championships which seems a bit excessive.  And as a whole, the banner designs are rather plain, even boring.  Where the Bruins and Celtics banners are somewhat understated, they do have a simple elegance to them that the United Center ones lack.

Oh Say Can Your Hear

One of the great traditions in all of sports is the signing of the national anthem at Blackhawks games.  I had only seen it on TV and never in person until my trip there.  TV does it no justice at all.  Anthem singer Jim Cornelison is one of the best I've ever heard with a fantastic voice.  But it is the Chicago crowd that makes this one of the best things I've ever witnessed live.  Rather than sing along, the crowd cheers the entire time. And by cheer, I mean make noise, and lots of it.  But it is not disrespectful in any way.  Rather, its just what they do.  And it is amazing. And loud.

What the sound system lacks, the crowd more than makes up for.  I mean, these people can make some serious noise.  They are into the game from the first drop of the puck and don't lose focus at all.  Sure, there are the typical in-game distractions from promotions on the jumbotron, but the hockey is first and foremost. This was a serious hockey crowd.  Now, I'm not sure if they brought their 'A' game because it was a Saturday night and they were playing a fellow Original 6 team who also happened to be the defending Stanley Cup champs, but for that night at least it was a great atmosphere.

And lest I forget, I need to mention the goal horn.  Or goal horns.  Four bugles are mounted underneath the center ice scoreboard and they emit the most wonderful, rich sound when they are played.  The foghorn at the Garden is nice, but this puts it to shame.

Seeing Red

When you have a classic, timeless look like the Blackhawks have, why wouldn't you want to wear one of their sweaters? And ever since the NHL went to the 'white on the road' rule in the 03-04 season, we have been denied the opportunity to see Chicago wear their brilliant red sweaters at the Garden.  Not so when we went on the road.  Simply beautiful.  Even their third/alternate sweaters are pretty good.

I'd say that 90% of the crowd was wearing a hockey sweater of some sort, include those of us in Bruins gear.  And just about all of the remaining 10% was wearing some other sort of team branded clothing. The Chicago fans clearly showed favor for the red sweaters, easily choosing them over the white and black varieties by a 3 to 1 margin.

And with the storied history that they have, there are a bevy of good, if not great players that the fans can choose to pay tribute to with their sweater customization.  Sure, there were plenty of Toews, Kane and Sharp sweaters to be seen in the crowd, but for every two members of the 2010 championship team that I saw on someone's back, there was one of the Hawks' greats to be found:

1991 Jeremy Roenick Campbell Conf.
All Star replica
70's Tony Esposito
away replica
Early 90's Steve Larmer away replica
(w/ current Jonathan Toews throwback)
2003 Theoren Fleury home replica
(token waste of money sweater)
Mid 90's Ed Belfour home replica
Current Marian Hossa home replica
Mid 60's Glen Hall
sweater reproduction
Mid 90's Tony Amonte
home replica
Early 90s Jeremy Roenick
& Bob Probert home replicas
Stan Mikita
home replica
1991-2 Jeremy Roenick
NHL 75th Anniversary Throwback

The Game

Ah, yes, there was actually a game played as well.

The Bruins came out like they were sleepwalking and the Blackhawks took advantage late in the first period with Brian Bickell scoring to take a 1-0 lead off a horrible turnover by Andrew Ference in the defensive zone.  The Bruins tied it up just over a minute into the second period on a Chris Kelly shorthanded tally, but the Hawks countered just a minute later on a narrow angle wrister from the elusive Patrick Kane that managed to sneak by Thomas' far side.

Chicago continued to pressure the Black and Gold with Tim Thomas stellar play the only reason the B's weren't getting blown out.  Late into the third period, the Bruins began to wake up and the ice started to shift in their favor.  Nathan Horton netted the tying goal about 8 minutes in. The Bruins continued to take the puck to the Chicago net, but Corey Crawford was solid.

In overtime, Rich Peverley had a chance to win it for the B's on a clean breakway off a Chicago turnover, but his backhand shot missed wide and the game went to a shootout.

In the past, this usually signaled a death knell.  The Bruins simply suck in shootouts.  And our (as in Heather and me) track record on road games was equally as poor.  And the Blackhawks three shooters were Kane, Toews and Sharp.  We were screwed.

But somehow, Tim Thomas stopped all three shots while Tyler Seguin beat Crawford through the five hole and the goal stood as the deciding tally as the Bruins actually garnered 2 points for their second win of the season.

In Conclusion

This was by far my favorite road trip, ever. The combination of touring a great city such as Chicago with sampling some of my favorite food and taking in a great hockey environment was unparalleled.  Add in some gorgeous weather, some good friends and a bunch of friendly midwesterners and it was the perfect weekend getaway.  I only wish I had more time there.

Needless to say, I want to go back again.  And soon.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Road Trip Recap - Part II: We're on a Mission for Dogs

Road Trip Recap: Part I

This place has got everything!
I've said it many times before, road trips to sporting events are the perfect excuses to visit places that I want to see.  Even though I'd been to Chicago before, I was absolutely dying to go back for a number of reasons.  Besides seeing an Original Six matchup on a Saturday night, there were a bunch of places (mostly food related) that I had prioritized on my itinerary.

Now, for those who don't know me well, or at least the non-rabid hockey fan side of me, in my spare time I fancy myself a bit of a foodie.  If I'm not grilling, roasting, sauteing or baking food, chances are I'm either watching sports or cooking shows on TV. And lots of No Reservations as well.  Tony Bourdain's show on the Travel Channel is pretty much my favorite show on TV and has been for quite some time now.

It was, in fact, while watching his episode where he went to Chicago, that I was inspired to redouble my efforts to see a Bruins/Blackhawks game there.  In particular, there was one specific restaurant I made it my personal mission to hit up on my trip, come hell or high water.

So, let's take a look back at my epicurean adventure in the Second City.

Friday Night

After working pretty much a full day (I banged out an hour early to avoid traffic on the Pike), I headed straight to Logan for our flight on Southwest. I got there in pretty decent time so I figured I'd park in the economy lot instead of central parking, saving a bit of cash in doing so.  However, I misread the signage (not an uncommon occurrence amongst travelers to the Boston airport) and ended up parking in the expensive ($24 a day) lot.  It was a small consolation, then, that I managed to get a spot right near the elevators to Terminal E.

Terminal E is best known as the international terminal at Logan. During the afternoon/evening, the terminal often slammed with passengers making their ways to a host of foreign destinations such as London, Frankfurt or Amsterdam.  Fortunately, Southwest has it's own separate (domestic) mini-terminal within Terminal E, which means the security lines are usually on the small side.  Heather and I zipped through the line and headed over to the Boston Beer Works to grab a snack and a drink during our wait.  I'm a fan of the Beer Works, having been to their Canal Street and Fenway locations many a time. I ordered a pint of Blueberry Ale, Heather had a Victory Red and we split a cheese pizza as we were not looking at getting a real dinner until 10:00 at the earliest.  The beer was good, the pizza sucked and our bartender/waiter was straight out of central casting as an extra in The Town.

Once we landed at Midway, we hopped a cab into town where we were staying at the Holiday Inn Express at the corner of Wabash and Ontario.  Talk about the world's smallest hotel room!  This thing was a literal shoebox.  But, we weren't here to sit in a room and watch TV all day and it had beds, so we were good.

We then headed out and walked two blocks away to the corner of Grand and State to the Hilton Garden Inn that the rest of the crew was staying in.  It is also the home of one of my favorite restaurants in the entire world - The Weber Grill.

The Weber-Stephen Products company is based in Illinois and has its roots at a Chicago steel fabricator.  When it comes to grilling, Webers are pretty much the only way to go, whether or not you're a gas or charcoal aficionado.  Built well and delivering unparalleled performance, they are well worth the money.  I own 2 Smokey Joes and a Q220 for tailgating and a Genesis E320 for the home.  At the same time, they also put out some wonderful cookbooks, including the two I own: Weber's Big Book of Grilling and Weber's Real Grilling.

Ranch kettles in the kitchen of the Weber Grill
But the company also owns and operates the Weber Grill restaurant.  The premise of the place is that all of the food is cooked not under broilers or cooktops, but on commercial versions of the Weber Ranch Kettle, using real charcoal to add wonderful smokey flavor everything they grill.  I'd been there before, having ordered the BBQ combo plate with brisket, ribs, beans and cornbread.  It was awesome.  It was also a ton of food.  But it was so damn good and the smell of smoke permeating the air only added to the ambiance of the place.

So, we met up with the group and sat down for dinner.  Heather went with the Tuscan brick chicken, a take on the traditional pollo al matttone , served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes that she enjoyed so much that she was contemplating using them as a spa treatment.  I played it somewhat safe, given the late dining hour, going with a half rack of smoked St. Louis style ribs with cornbread and bourbon baked beans.  Being in Chicago, I felt that it was only right to wash it all down with a fine local brew, in this case a Goose Island Matilda, a take on a traditional Belgian pale ale.  It was delicious.

The half rack of St. Louis ribs with cornbread and beans
The ribs were fantastic.  The meat was tender, moist and smokey, literally just about falling off the bones.  The cornbread was the moist, cakey type that I love; not too sweet and full of roasted corn flavor.  But what really makes the meal here are the beans.  As much as I love baked beans (hey, I am a native New Englander, after all). these are some of the best I've ever had.  Loaded with beans, onions and burnt ends (the tips of smoked brisket) in a tangy vinegar and tomato-based sauce, they are to die for.  They have the recipe for them in one of their cookbooks, but I don't ever think I could truly replicate the experience of eating them in that perfect of an environment.

Saturday Morning

Hot Doug's
 The Sausage Superstore & Encased Meat Emporium
As much as I was looking forward to going back to the Weber Grill, there was one place that I was absolutely dying to go to: Hot Doug's.

I first heard about Hot Doug's watching No Reservations.  Bourdain was doing his typical shtick hitting up unpretentious holes in the wall with awesome food (which I love, btw) when he traveled to the Avondale section on the north side of town and found a neighborhood joint.  But this wasn't just any lunch counter. Far from it, in fact.

Chicago is home to some of the biggest names in the cooking world, a veritable who's who of modern gastronomy: Rick Bayless, Grant Achaz and Paul Kahan to name a few.  But I'm going to add Doug Sohn to that list, if he's not there already.

Doug's restaurant is a nondescript brick building on a street corner that has about 15 tables total decked out in bright primary colors and decorated with a variety of kitschy hot dog related paraphernalia and vintage posters. He does one thing and one thing very well: tubular steaks, or as he refers to it "encased meats". In other words, we're talking about hot dogs and sausages.
Doug Sohn, the true sausage king of Chicago
The premise is quite simple: he makes a variety of homemade hot dogs and sausages from scratch, often incorporating many high-end ingredients that you'd expect to find at fancy formal restaurants, and sells them at inexpensive prices.  He has a standard menu of items (with a rotating list of celebrity inspired names) as well as weekly specials featuring the 'game of the week' with game meat (currently wild boar) and the 'celebrity sausage of the week'. The place is only open Monday to Saturday from 10:30 to 4:00.

The city skyline from Navy Pier
Heather and I got up early in the morning to take a quick trip over to Navy Pier.  She wanted to grab a picture of her at the Bob Newhart Statue with Bob decked out in her black and gold scarf.  I had a bit more somber reason. My good friend Dave Gonzalez passed away there in an accident a few years back and I wanted to pay tribute to his memory.  It was a perfect sunny morning and there was a race along the shoreline that was finishing up, but the place was nice and quiet.  I grabbed some pictures of the skyline and the harbor and we hopped a cab back to the Garden Inn to meet up with the Barrys.

Knowing that Hot Doug's was a popular place, we decided that we should probably head out around 9:30 to get there when the place opened.  As it happened, the rest of the 307 crew wanted to make the trek with us as well.  Hey, the more, the merrier.

We got on the red line on the El and headed north to the Belmont stop where we switched over to the #70 bus. We got off at the corner of California and Belmont and made the quarter mile walk down to Hot Doug's.  When we got there around 10:20, the line was about 30 people long.  Fortunately, the sun was out and the building blocked the wind, because it was a good 45 minute wait before we made it inside.

But once we got inside, oh man, it was a revelation.

The menu wall
The first thing you notice is the size of the place - not big at all.  The menu is posted on the wall to your right and you wait in line to place your order with none other than the man himself, Doug.  In the meantime, the waitstaff is clearing tables and setting up seats to accommodate your group in anticipation of your order.  Signs posted make it abundantly clear that patrons are not to grab seats until they place their orders.  And because customers adhere to this, the system works as good, if not better than, any wait service I've ever seen.  I could not believe how efficient it was, really.

Doug is awesome.  A jovial character in his black framed glasses, he greeted us with the sort of genteel banter one would expect by wearing Bruins gear into enemy territory.  But it was all in good fun.

What else is a nice Jewish boy supposed to order?
Being in Chicago, there was no way I wasn't ordering a traditional Chicago style dog, a grilled all beef Vienna frank served on a poppy seed bun topped with onions, neon green relish, mustard, celery salt and a pickle spear.  At $2.00, it was beyond a bargain and tasted like pure Chicago-style comfort food.  I also ordered one of the specials of the week: a curry pork sausage topped spinach raita and crumbled blue cheese and drizzled with honey. Damn, it was fantastic.  The sausage was juicy and well seasoned, with the raita adding a creamy, but light vegetal touch and the honey adding a bit of sweetness. The addition of blue cheese was just gilding the lily.  I was blown away. As for a beverage, being the nice little mensch that I am, there was no way I was going to pass up a can of Dr. Brown's, in this case the diet black cherry (hey, I needed something to offset the damage I was doing with the food).

Counterclockwise: Chicken & spinach chicken sausage,
Thuringer sausage, Curry Pork sausage with spinach
 raita, blue cheese & honey, Chicago Dog, duck fat fries
Heather went with the Norm Crosby: A homemade Thuringer style sausage made with beef, pork and garlic.  She also had one of the other specials: a chicken sausage made with mozzarella and spinach.  She held off on the smoked  provolone and pesto aioli, however, choosing to go the naked route.  She loved it.

Tim and Maureen went with the Thuringer sausages as well and Tricia had the chicken and spinach sausage.  I think they enjoyed them greatly.  Paula and Patty were the lone tube steak holdouts, but they provided good company nonetheless.

But the piece de resistance were the duck fat fries.

Yep, you read that right, fries cooked in duck fat.

The legendary duck fat fries
One of Doug's signature offerings, the fries have reached legendary status along with his famed (or infamous) foie gras and sauternes duck sausage.  He only makes them on Fridays and Saturdays, so when we started to plan our trip in the summer, we knew we were going be able to get them.  For a mere $3.50 you get a heaping mound of fresh cut, perfectly crisp shoestring fries that were not greasy but oh so good.  Sadly, we only put a small dent in the basket as we were pretty stuffed from the meaty goodness the preceeded them.

I can honestly say that this is now one of my favorite dining establishments, ever.  I had high expectations to begin with, but this place blew them out of the water.  Just a fun time all around. I will make it a mission heneforth to return sometime (hopefully in the not too distant future).  Kudos to Doug and his staff, you rock.

Saturday Night

Our culinary exploits continued later in the day as we made our way into the United Center.  Having got to the stadium fairly early, we were afforded the opportunity to take an extended tour of the lower bowl and concourses to peruse the many concession offerings available to us.  Still somewhat full from the bounty at Hot Doug's, I wasn't in dire need of further sustenance, especially considering we had postgame plans for dinner anyways.

It wasn't even a quarter of the way around from gate 2 on Madison when it became readily apparent that this was not the TD Banknorth Garden.  Perhaps it's because the concessions are handled by Levy Restaurants and not Delaware North, but the food variety and quality puts just about anything and everything they serve back home to shame.  Besides a huge number of stand alone bars and lounges spread throughout the arena, there is a variety of food stands that sell everything from standard stadium food (burgers, fries, etc.) to Italian beef sandwiches, carved turkey and roast beef, ribeye steak and pork chop sandwiches and on and on.  Granted, you'll pay a bit for some of the offerings, but given the quality (the stuff looked damn good) and variety, fans would be hard pressed to not at least consider buying stuff like this back on Causeway Street.

Needing a little something to tide me over, nonetheless, I looked around for something along the lines of an appetizer, but I really didn't want fries or a pretzel or anything that I could get anywhere else.  Then I found exactly what I was in search of at the Sweet Baby Rays barbecue stand: fried mac and cheese triangles.

I've seen a bunch of bar menus that have had deep fried mac & cheese balls (a take on the popular arancini), but never have I seen it offered at a sporting venue.  I knew I had to try them.  Battered and deep fried, they were perfectly crisp on the outside and gooey and cheesey on the inside.  I shared them with the crew as we took in warmups from behind the Bruins bench and they were universally loved by all.  They went so fast, I wasn't even able to get a photo of them.

After the game, we made our way back towards the hotels and headed over to Pizzeria Due.  Part of the Unos chain, it was recommended to me by a number of friends who have lived in Chicago.  There was no way I was going to Chicago this time without grabbing some deep dish pizza.  It was around 11:00 and I was starving.  I ordered up a personal barbecue chicken for me and the rest of the crew went with two pies, a plain cheese and a sausage. I also went with a Goose Island 312, a light wheat ale that was perfect with such a heavy meal.

The BBQ chicken pizza at Due
It was everything I had hoped for.  Cheese on top of more cheese, tangy sauce, caramelized onions and tender chicken inside a tender crust.  Everybody seemed to throughly enjoy the food.  I managed to have a bit of the tomato sauce on one of the other pies and it was some of the best I've ever tasted.

Was it the fanciest meal I've had? No.  Was it the best pizza I've had? Nope (Todd English's Figs holds that honor for the time being). But it was exactly what I was looking for and it made me happy.

In all, I fulfilled my mission to hit all the places I had intended on going to, but Chicago being the food Mecca that it is, I was left wanting more.  And dammit, I'm making sure I'm going to get back there, and soon.

Next Up: Part III - Seeing Red, the Madhouse on Madison

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Road Trip Recap - Part I: Sweet Home Chicago


One of the truly great American locales, the Windy City has so much that appeals directly to my core: great food, amazing architecture and original six hockey.

Is there any movie that
captures the Windy City any better?
It's also the backdrop to two of the all-time greatest comedies ever made: The Blues Brothers and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Not a day goes by in my life where I don't make a reference to or quote a line from one of these films.  I fell in love with these movies at a very early age and they helped define my sense of humor ever since.

I'd been itching to hit Chicago for a long time., having been there twice in the past. The first time was in 1998 during Senior Week in college as part of a 'baseball across the midwest' trip I took with a couple of my good friends. We took in a Cubs game at Wrigley the only way it should be done: on a weekday afternoon in the bleachers.  The Cubs lost to the Phillies 10-5 despite two Sammy Sosa home runs, but I had an absolute blast.  The bleachers were general admission seating, the sun was shining on a perfect 80 degree day, I was drinking afew beers and I had the best hot dog I'd ever had in my life - a kosher dog with mustard and sauteed onions on a poppy seed bun.  After the game we did some walking (Grant Park, Michigan Ave., Navy Pier) and then we grabbed dinner at Harry Caray's (the original steakhouse) where I had the best veal parmigiana of my life.

My second trip to the Second City was in June of 2009 for a United States National Team World Cup qualifier against Honduras at the renovated Soldier Field.  The US came from behind to win the match 2-1 as they continued their march to the World Cup finals in South Africa.  We had spent much of the pregame at Fado, an Irish pub downtown, but after the game a bunch of us wanted to sit down and get some real sustenance.  As we exited the subway at the Grand St. stop on the Red Line, we literally bumped into the Weber Grill. Now, for those of you who know me, I am a complete and utter Weber slut.  Besides owning four of their grills, I also own two of their cookbooks, two sets of their utensils and various pieces of weber-branded apparel.  My day could not have ended on a higher note - sharing some absolutely fantastic barbecue with some great friends at the Mecca for the Weber lifestyle.

Way back in 2009, when the NHL schedule came out, one date stood out right away: December 18.  That was a Saturday.  The Bruins were playing the Blackhawks in Chicago.  I called Heather right away about a possible road trip.  Unfortunately, it just wasn't going to work out.  My son's first birthday was on the 17th and there was no way I was going to miss that nor was I going to miss his party we were going to have on the 19th.  Due to the way the NHL schedules inter-conference matchups, a trip to Chicago would have to wait at least two years.

The silver lining to that was that we were able to celebrate my 35th birthday in Toronto for Hockey Night in Canada in 2010, a trip that I blogged about extensively here.

I'll go. I'll go. I'll go
Fast forward, then, to last June.  The NHL schedule came out on the 24th and almost immediately Heather and I got together on the phone.  The date was set - Saturday, October 15.  The Bruins were going to play in Chicago.  After we checked in with our respective spouses, it was a go.  And as an added bonus, a bunch of our Section 307 family wanted to go as well.

Now, my first rule of road tripping is to never book flights or accommodations before having game tickets in hand.  Being a Saturday night (one of a very few home Saturday night games at the United Center) against an original six team who only makes an appearance there a minimum of every two years, I knew that this was going to be a tough ticket to get, never mind that we needed to get seven of them all together.

I signed up on the Blackhawks website for advance single game ticket sales to get in on any presales they might have.  Alas, when tickets did go on sale through the Blackhawks website, the only thing I could find was standing room only.  That just wasn't going to work for our entire group.  We had called in a big favor through a friend with connections for our tickets in Toronto last year, but we didn't really want to go that route again so soon.  That meant going to the secondary market.

Rather than going to a bunch of sites I'd never heard of before, I went to StubHub and was able to get 7 tickets in section 307 of all places.  Perfect.  Tickets in hand (or on the way), Heather and I booked flights.  Because of work commitments, Heather and I had to work all day Friday, but the rest of the crew (The Barrys, Paula, Patty and Tricia) was going to fly in early and do some sightseeing beforehand.  I was able to get direct flights out of Logan to Midway via Southwest for a pretty good price. The only drawback being that we'd have to catch an early flight back on Sunday.  Oh well.

Heather was able to line us up a hotel along the Magnificent Mile via Hotels.com.  Prices for rooms were somewhat high, perhaps due to the Bears playing at home on Sunday night.  Nonetheless, we got a fairly decent price and we were going to be close to the rest of the crew and near a bunch of places we wanted to see while in town.

With all the logistics lined up, all we had to do was wait for the season to get underway.

Next up: Part II - We're on a Mission for Dogs

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Interior Decorating, Boston Style

As a Boston sports fan, I am privileged.

Despite blemishes such as Bucky Bleeping Dent, Too Many Men on the Ice and David Tyree's miracle catch, I've been fortunate to witness many great successes from the local sports entries (with the exception of my beloved Revolution).  Even better, I've seen a bunch firsthand: Clinching the AL East pennant in 86 and 07, the Celtics' epic 30 comeback against the Nets in 2002, last minute victories for the Pats on MNF in Denver and Baltimore and raising the 2008 NBA championship banner.

They were all great.

But the other night took the cake.

If there's one thing the Bruins do right, year in and year out, it's knowing how to throw a celebration.

Even in the lean years, when it came to throwing retirement ceremonies for Taz, Bourque and Neely, opening night festivities or honoring past cup championship teams, the B's did it right: killer video montages, a-list alumni, the whole shebang.

So, you figured for something as big and as extravagant as a banner raising, the Bruins would pull out all the stops.  And they did.

So let's take a look back at an absolutely epic day.

Just the Facts, Jack (Edwards)

  • Game 1, Boston Bruins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
  • First game between these two since the Bruins swept the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals (4-0)
John Blue Plate Special

Certain non-holiday days of the year require banging out of work: Patriot's Day, championship parades, road trips to away games, etc.  Having had to take a couple of hours off earlier in the week for my Stanley Cup photo shoot, I couldn't devote the entire gameday to being out of the office.  So I compromised and took a a half day instead.

Got to the Fours around 12:45 after flying into town on the Pike.  It's amazing how quick that commute can be when there's not traffic.  Met up with Heather, Pete, Cornelius and the heretofore mysterious Sarah Connors.

Part of the beauty of the Bruins winning the Cup is the fact that Heather and I are no longer tied to our superstitions.  That meant we were free to order whatever we wanted for lunch.  So we each went with the Johnny Kelly in a wrap with bacon and fries on the side.  Damn, that was good.

The Cup takes a ride on a BFD ladder truck down Canal St.
But because part of the theme of the day was closure on the Stanley Cup celebration, and the fact that we were going to be pregaming at the Four's for a few hours, we figured it'd be a good idea to give our playoff menu one last go-around before we headed in for the game.  So we ordered up a plate of boneless wings to sustain us.

BPD parades with hockey sticks in hand
Even better, being at the Fours allowed me to stake out an excellent vantage point to view the Stanley Cup parade down Canal Street.  The Cup was riding on the top of a Boston Fire Department ladder truck and a procession of local cops and firefighters carrying hockey sticks (in lieu of riffles) followed.  Truth be told, it was pretty cool.

Couture Corner

This was opening night and we were celebrating last year's team, so I went into this game fully expecting to see sweaters with mostly recent players names on them.  I had no pretenses about seeing anything overly special, but I was ok with making an exception for this one night.

So what did I find?

Let's take a look:

2001 Ray Bourque Avs/Bruins combo sweater

OK, let's get this over with: Time to put this away forever.

Seriously, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup.  We don't have root vicariously through Ray Bourque anymore.  That was 10 years ago.  It's a new era.  Hang it up and get a real Bruins sweater already.

1996 Ray Bourque All Star sweater

Now, this is more like it.  This was a replica of the sweater Ray wore when he captured the All Star MVP on home ice.  He scored the game winner on a backhanded shot from above the right circle.  You couldn't have scripted it any better.

As for my attire, I went with what I wore throughout the playoffs - my 2010 Milan Lucic Winter Classic.

The 307 crew
The Row 11 Rundown

For the first time that I can remember, the entire 307 crew was in the house for this one.  Paula, Patty, Cassie, all three Kasper kids, the Hoyts, the Barrys (Tim, Maureen and John), me, Heather, Pete (the seat 11 designee for the night), Robyn, Charla, Kathi and the kids, lest we forget Reader's Digest (her real name still escapes me).  It was nice that Robyn, John and Lauren were able to get tickets on their own to to be there.

Doosh of the Day

I had to think about this one for a bit, but then it became obvious to me.

The DoTD goes to anyone who booed Jeremy Jacobs during his speech in the banner raising ceremony.

Look, I used to absolutely detest the guy (and his son Charlie).  An absentee owner who was more concerned with maintaining his profitable concession operation than with his storied hockey franchise.  Never willing to spend money to make his team a true contender.  Out of touch with his fanbase.  Always raising my ticket prices, justified or not. Denied Ray Bourque and Cam Neely chances to win the Stanley Cup in the black and gold.

You know what?  That all changed post lockout.  Sure, they royally effed up their strategy as far as forming a roster in 2005, getting stuck with players like Alexi Zhamnov while losing out on ones like Brian Rolston and Mychael Nylander.  And there was that whole Dave Lewis fiasco.

But to his credit, he brought in Peter Chiarelli, who, in turn, brought in Claude Julien.  He allowed Chiarelli to spend up to the salary cap and bring in players like Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard while also re-signing guys like Bergeron, Thomas, Krejci and Lucic to big extensions.  He brought in Cam Neely to help restore the aura of the Big Bad Bruins. He allowed the people he hired to run the on-ice aspects to the franchise to operate somewhat autonomously and succeed wit the resources he gave them to work with.

And they won hockey's ultimate prize.

So, for all of those "fans" who chose to boo him (rather than remain silent in the absence of applause), grow up.  Booing him was a classless act.  On a night where we were collectively celebrating one of the greatest accomplishments in franchise history, in a ceremony where we should have all been rejoicing, a number of individuals were content to bring a measure of shame when there was no reason for it.

The Lobel Prize

With Sean O'Donnell departing for Chicago, the Flyers have no ex-Bruins on their current roster.  So the prize goes unclaimed for another day.

Interior decorating, Boston style
The Home End

Simply put, the banner raising ceremony is one of, if not the greatest spectacle at a sporting event I've ever been fortunate to witness firsthand.

From the parade down Canal Street, to the video montage on a special curtain hanging from the scoreboard, to the curtain dropping to reveal the 2011 banner, to the 2011 team (with Mark Recchi and Shane Hnidy in full gear) taking a triumphant spin on the Garden ice with the Cup being passed around amongst the players), to the team photo at center ice with the cup, to the speeches by Jacobs, Neely, Chara and Chiarelli, to the presentation of the Starter jacket by Andrew Ference to Rex, to the 1972 cup-winning team coming out (complete with replica sweaters) to help raise the banner alongside the 2011 team, it was classy, stunning and amazing.

With all the hoopla over the banner raising, it was not far fetched to think that the actual game was going to be an afterthought.  There was bound to be some sort of emotional letdown as the game progressed.  The Bruins came out strong, scoring the first goal of the game on a Brad Marchand power play strike halfway through the first period.

But the Flyers struck twice in the last minute of play in the same frame as the Bruins got caught a bit off guard.  Tim Thomas was solid in net, but the Flyers, behind new netminder Ilya Brzgalov, were equal to the task.

It was a disappoint loss, especially considering that a win would have been the perfect ending to a spectacular evening.

Then again, the Bruins did open the 2011 season with a loss.  To a team backstopped by Bryzgalov.

Perhaps it's a good omen, then?