Rating Restrooms

I flew through the Houston Hobby airport recently, and when I made a pit stop I saw this restroom rating apparatus on a wall near the exit.

My first reaction: a touch screen rating device, in a public men’s room in a busy airport? Really? I mean, really? I don’t think I’d touch a touch screen device under those circumstances even if my best friend was responsible for restroom hygiene and his job depended on getting good ratings. How many people are going to provide ratings using that methodology?

My second reaction: why even offer the smiley face option? How many people who use public facilities at airports do so with an ear-to-ear grin, even if the restroom is spotless? The best rating I would ever give is an impassive face with a flat line for a mouth — neither happy nor sad, but at least not enraged or disgusted by the condition of the restroom.

My third reaction: I know airports want travelers to think they really care about restroom hygiene, but soliciting ratings seems like an empty gesture. Why not take whatever you would spend on touch screen ratings devices and use it instead to buy better quality paper towels that don’t dissolve upon first contact with a wet, soapy hand?

Fountain Art

On the walk between my hotel and my meetings in Houston this week, there is one of these timed fountains. Maybe it’s because I live in fountain-deprived Columbus, but I find it to be fascinating and beautiful. Not in an overpowering, Las Vegas fountain performance to the sounds of Mannheim Steamroller kind of way, but rather for the simplicity of the arcs traced in the air by the controlled bursts of the water.

It makes me wish that Columbus were more like Rome, and that there were more fountains in the world. I’ll take a fountain over a rusting piece of generic abstract art on a corporate plaza any day.

Down-Home BBQ

I’m in Houston for work. When you’re a visitor to a town on a working trip, it’s nice to get away from the hotel scene and hit one of the local joints and, if possible, enjoy some true regional cuisine — like authentic, wood-smoked barbecue.

Last night I hit the mark when the Tattooed Cyclist and his lovely wife took me to Gatlin’s BBQ, one of their favorite hangouts. There we feasted on ribs with an excellent bark, venison sausage, spicy sausage, and some succulent brisket. I added to that a few heaping spoonfuls of mac and cheese and, at the insistence of Mrs. Tattooed Cyclist, some fried okra. Me, eating fried okra! It was good, and proved that pretty much anything fried is palatable. And, of course, when you’re attacking a platter of BBQ, a local brew is essential.

Some people argue about which kind of barbecue is best — Texas, Memphis, Kansas City, Carolina, or wherever your favorite may be found. I think that’s pointless, really. It’s like debating whether Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Renoir, or Jackson Pollack is the best artist. Each should be appreciated for their mastery of their own styles and the masterpieces they produced. When it comes to BBQ, I’ll gladly sample the different offerings of anybody who treats the production of smoked meats as an artistic endeavor, and consume their creative output with relish.

Down Into The Levels of Travel Hell

Dante’s Inferno envisioned nine levels of Hell, with the hopeless condemned being subjected to various kinds of torment depending on the nature of sins they had committed.

Any traveler knows that there are similar levels of Travel Hell.  Yesterday, Kish and I got down to about Level 5.

angerWe first crossed the river Styx when an early morning snowstorm and de-icing needs delayed our flight out of Columbus.  We abandoned all hope when our flight was late arriving in St. Louis and the airline inexplicably did not  hold the plane for only the few minutes needed for us to make our connection — leaving us winded and desolate as we stood at the gate, watching our plane move slowly away — and instead booked us for a flight to occur 11 hours later.  We then wandered like lost souls through the St. Louis airport, moving from terminal to terminal in the bitter cold, enduring the initial levels of Travel Hell and hoping in vain to find an earlier flight option.  We moved even lower when we decided to take an earlier flight, through Houston, with the thought that we could then drive to our ultimate destination of San Antonio, and learned that the flight was populated entirely by screaming, thrashing children and inattentive parents.

We reached our final depth when we arrived in Houston, found the rental car counters in the terminal were closed, checked to make sure that their signs indicated they had cars available, then went to a rental car area only to learn that notwithstanding the freaking sign, they had no cars, and we therefore had to return to the terminal and board another bus to get to another rental car outlet.  The final indignity came when, after waiting patiently in the line at the rental car counter and finally securing a vehicle, we were directed to a car, got in, drove to the exit, and were told that we were in the wrong kind of car and needed to return it and get another one.  After that piece de resistance, the three-hour drive through the rain from Houston to San Antonio, with oversized pick-ups with their brights on powering up right behind us, seemed like a walk in the park.

Fortunately, we didn’t reach the lowest levels of Travel Hell — which involve things like being physically ill, getting food poisoning at an airport terminal food court, and then having to spend the night in an airport in the company of fellow travelers who won’t shut up — but Level 5 was bad enough.  After 14 hours, we emerged from the pits into the friendly environs of San Antonio, and the air never smelled so sweet.

Found Lamb

I like it when the people setting up a business dinner meeting pick a really good restaurant. So when the hosts of a meeting in Houston tonight said we were going to Hugo’s, I was a happy caballero.

Hugo’s is a place that will change your conception of south of the border cuisine. The food is exceptionally good and willing to bend the rules a bit, and the sauces are delectable. Tonight I had the shredded suckling pig appetizer with a punchy habanero sauce, and the entree was this beautiful combo of little lamb chops and lamb sausage. Wash it down with a glass of Amarone, and you’ve got all the ingredients of a great business meeting.

It beats a PowerPoint presentation and a Danish any day!

Hugo’s In Houston

IMG_5483I like your basic Mexican restaurant.  I like the never-ending basket of chips and salsa, which I could eat until I explode.  I like the Mexican beer.  I like figuring out the combo plates, choosing between the various forms of tacos and enchiladas and burritos, always with refried beans (yum!) and Spanish rice (yuck!).

So, when I came to Houston and was invited to dinner at a place described as offering high-end Mexican fare, I was intrigued.  And after I finished my astonishingly fine meal at Hugo’s, I realized that my Midwestern understanding of Mexican cuisine was completely, horribly, grotesquely stunted.

The menu was extensive, and not a combo plate was in sight.  We began our feast with an excellent, reasonably priced bottle of wine and three dishes to share:  lechon, with pulled meat of suckling pig, tortillas, and habanero salsa; pulpo al carbon, grilled octopus with onions, peppers, and chipotle tomatillo sauce and tortillas; and carnitas de pato, duck tacos with tomatillo sauce.  All were excellent, but the duck tacos, with their killer sauce, were my favorite.

For my entree I took the recommendation of our waiter and tried the callo de hacha — pan-seared scallops over sweet corn bread — and suddenly I was extremely glad that we stopped sharing after the appetizer course.  The scallops were plump, tender, and perfectly prepared, with a nice crust; the cornbread and rajas con crema sauce were the perfect complement.  It was one of those meals where it was almost impossible to fight off the urge to start drooling and groaning like Homer Simpson after being presented with a platter of Lard Lad donuts.  It was just an incredible meal.

There’s lots to learn about the scope and extent of Mexican cooking.  I plan on continuing my education at Hugo’s the next time I’m in Houston.

To Infinity, And Beyond

It’s fun to stand next to a very tall building and look straight up the side, to where the building’s lines converge into nothingness far overhead.  When you do that, you are seeing the world from a different perspective — and, of course, the blood rushes to the back of your head, you get a bit dizzy, and you look like a hick to the native city-dwellers.  All of that is just part of the fun.

This photo is of one of the Chevron buildings in downtown Houston.

Bonbons In The Big City

The design of corporate plazas often is rote and uninspired.  A lone tree in a planter here, a random piece of abstract sculpture there, a concrete bench or two at the opposite end . . . it’s why so many downtown areas have this grim sense of sameness.

It’s a pleasure when you see some downtown landscaping that is different and interesting, like this collection of topiary bushes in front of one of the Chevron buildings in Houston.  The spherical shrubs look like bonbons in a candy box, or tomatoes on the shelf in the produce section at the grocery store.  Seeing the ball-like shapes as I walked by brought a smile to my face.

Home Of The Jetsons?

I’m not a huge fan of modern architecture, but occasionally you see a futuristic design that makes you stop in your tracks.  The Chevron complex in Houston is like that.  An expanse of concrete, steel, chrome, and glass with a cool, above ground circular walkway connecting the different buildings, it looks like it came straight from the drawing board of the creators of The Jetsons cartoon.

Walking by, you expect to see a slobbering Astro come bounding past you, and you can’t help but listen carefully for George’s desperate cry:  “Help, Jane.  Stop this crazy thing!  Help, Jaaaaaaaaaaaane!”

Suburbs, Or Space Aliens

An unknown Houston suburb

When I was a kid, I read  a book that argued that the Nazca figures in Peru — which depict wheels, monkeys, birds, and other figures visible only from the air — were proof that the Earth was visited from space.  Only visitors from outer space capable of rising hundreds of feet into the air, the book argued, could have directed groundbound primitives to create the figures.

At the time, it seemed like a good argument to me.  On my flight into Houston earlier this week, however, our approach to Hobby Airport took us directly over some nameless suburb.  The amoeba-like view of that neighborhood from the air made me think inevitably of the Nazca figures.  Could it be that the Nazca figures weren’t evidence of visitation from space aliens after all, but just early evidence of dreaded suburban sprawl?

Houston’s Horrendous Heat

When we were in Columbia, Missouri last week, the temperature climbed over 100 degrees.  It was hot — but it was like luxuriating in cool comfort compared to what I experienced in Houston Monday and Tuesday.

The August heat in Houston is like a fist that punches you in the gut and a hand that slaps your face the instant you walk outside.  One moment you are sharp and dry in your crisp white shirt and suit; the next you are wet and wilted, with a wrinkled, sodden bit of cotton clinging tenaciously to your back and sweat rivulets beginning to crawl down your spine.  The combination of baking heat and high humidity sucks the energy from you in a giant whoosh, and you begin hunting cravenly for the nearest air-conditioned oasis.

There’s a reason why most people move about underground in Houston during the summer and my hotel offered a complimentary shuttle to take guests on trips only a few blocks long.  In Houston in August, the surface of the Earth is not meant for most melting mortals.

There may be hotter places than Houston in August — the middle of the Amazon rain forest, or perhaps the dense jungles of southeast Asia — but I don’t want to find them.

The Horse In The Lobby

Good hotels seem to like to have some sort of landmark in the lobby.  Maybe it is just an added feature to make the lobby a bit more memorable, or perhaps its true purpose is to give guests a distinctive place where they can link up after dropping off their bags in their rooms.  (“OK, let’s meet by the clock in the lobby at 6:30.”)

I stayed at the Houston Four Seasons recently, and it is a fine hotel, indeed.  Its “lobby landmark” is a large carved wooden horse that is found at the corner of the lobby, next to the central staircase.  The horse is life-sized, or pretty darned close to it, made of blonde wood, and extremely realistic in appearance.  The craftsmanship on the piece really is quite striking.  As landmarks go, the “blonde wooden horse in the lobby” is pretty strong.

There’s only one problem, apparently.  The horse is located right next to the lobby bar, and according to the bartender there have been occasions where a guest has had a few too many and tried to ride the horse.  This is Texas, after all.