Sunday, November 30, 2008

Traveling the Trans-Siberian Railroad

I am usually not a fan of the San Francisco Chronicle. But this weekend's article about the Trans-Siberian by freelancer Bill Fink is a good read.

BTW, I just watched Ben Kingsley and Woody Harrelson's movie Transsiberian. It was terrible.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Good Eats Oregon Round-Up

At $1.89 per gallon for gasoline, it's road trip time again. Here are some eateries worth visiting in the Beaver State.

Larks (Ashland): Larks is associated with and connected to the Ashland Springs Hotel, a behemoth of a building in downtown next to the movie theater. We went there Thanksgiving night for dinner. Being as the visit was unexpected, we did not have reservations. The hostess was very accomodating and sat us at the bar, where we chatted with an octogenarian couple on their way from Washington state to Palm Springs. Though the clientele was definitely more "early bird special" than "Chowhound contributors", the food was excellent.

For Thanksgiving, as with Xmas and New Year's, there is a three course holiday prix fixe menu. I started with a medium-sized bowl of roasted winter squash bisque with mint creme fraiche. All of the ingredients were fresh and the bisque's consistency was perfect-- not too soupy and not too clumpy. What really stuck out, but not in an overpowering way, was the soup stock. It complemented the squash and the cream perfectly.

For the main, I chose the Oregon bay shrimp-stuffed filet of petrale sole with an orange tarragon Hollandaise served with red rice pilaf and braised Belgian endive. The fish and shrimp rested on the bed of rice pilaf so the rice was a bit soggy. The rice also had dried cranberries so I was not really digging it. But the sole was something else. It was firm, tender, and moist. The flavor was strong but not fishy. The little shrimps stuffed inside were marvelous. Two lightly salted stalks of steamed endive rounded out the dish.

I skipped the dessert because I was stuffed. It was definitely a memorable Thanksgiving dinner, sans canned cranberries and too-dry turkey.

Tabu (Ashland):We dropped by this place because I wanted to see an Oregonian interpretation of a tapas bar. It does not get an A for authenticity but we still had a good time. We were confused because there were two front doors. That threw us off. We chose a door, entered, and walked upstairs. A goateed fellow, speaking with the authority that can only come from the chef or owner of the place, welcomed us. The decor was festive and "Latin American chic". The orange hue that dominated the whole joint bordered on obnoxious, but never crossed that imaginary line.

The menu was misleading. I was under the false assumption that tapas meant small plates of finger foods. Given that belief, we ordered a lot of little plates. The portions were much bigger than we expected. Very American.

The oven roasted mushrooms came with goat cheese and a small stack of blue tortillas. The tortillas, if not store bought, did not taste freshly made. But the mushrooms, topped with the warm goat cheese, was very satisfying. My only complaint about the mushrooms is that the pieces were a little too thick. It felt like a platter for giants.

The gazpacho was refreshing but not really anything to write home about. With the proper ingredients and cooking implements, it could be easily replicated at home.

The crab quesadillas were forgetable. The tempura batter overwhelmed the crab. If given a blindfold, I would not be able to identify the meat inside as crab, or even as some kind of seafood.

As bland as the quesadillas were, the empanadas were fantastic. The crust was thick, flaky, and moist. There was none of that chalky consistency with overbaked empanadas that are unfortunately too prevalent these days in faux Latin eateries.

I downed a couple of caipirinhas. They were strong and made with decent ingredients. The after-dinner coffee was pretty amazing too. I think the drinks sealed the deal for me. I recommend Tabu, with the above caveats in mind.

That noodle place on Pearl near Broadway (Eugene): I did not catch the name of this place, which we found because it was next to an empty parking space on the street. The restaurant is six months old and looks it. The tables, booths, and silverware all looked new. It is obvious by the looks of the place that the management did not spend a lot of money on the place, but hey, they passed the savings on to you. If you want a quick and cheap place to eat, this is it. There is a fusion/pan-Asian menu, which consists of Korean meats or tofu on rice or noodles stir fried with a vegetable medley. There is a separate menu of Korean BBQ items. For 6 to 8 dollars, you get a generous bowl of relatively healthy and tasty food.

I had the spicy pork with noodles. It is nowhere as good as Noodle Theory in Oakland. I think it's comparable in quality to Zao Noodle, a growing West Coast noodle chain.

Kenny & Zuke's (Portland): This Portland institution arguably rivals the best delis in New York City. After hours of browsing through the endless aisles of books at Powell's a couple of blocks away, K&Z's is a welcome respite.

I had the corned beef hash with eggs. It came with a slice of toasted rye bread, split in two diagonally. The corned beef almost melts in your mouth, but is not disgustingly fatty. Its salt content was also just right. The potatoes, onions, and peppers were well-seasoned. My overeasy eggs were...overeasy. It was a perfect breakfast.

Corned beef hash with scrambled eggs


Why We Should Not Bail Out Ford

This, my friends, is why Ford should be allowed to go bankrupt.

Ford had the audacity to design $85,000 Jaguar XKs with a cheap telescopic antenna from the Ford Mondeo parts bin. This cost- and corner-cutting BS is symptomatic of the cancer in the company's management. Don't get me wrong. I feel bad about the union workers. Through no fault of their own, they will likely lose health benefits and a big chunk of their pension. But to bail out Ford (and GM and Chrysler) is essentially akin to supporting a loved one's drug habit. It's destructive and no good will come of it in the long run. The Big Three (and other large American companies waiting in line for corporate welfare) have to learn that poor decision making will no longer be tolerated or subsidized. Let those capitalists with their fancy MBAs live what they preach.

End of rant.


What the Magnum, PI Crew Should Have Driven

Magnum, PI was popular, in part, because of the exotic foreign cars paraded through each episode. But if the show were realistic, these are the cars the ensemble cast would actually drive.

Rick, Bill Blass Edition Lincoln Continental Mark VI. In the show, the manager of the King Kamehameha club drove a Mercedes R107. The Merc is a bit effete and too sophisticated for a glorified two-bit hustler. I think for someone of Rick's standing, a more mob-oriented Continental fits him better.

T.C., Ford Econoline. That the beefy T.C. would drive an underpowered VW van is a joke. It couldn't lug him AND a set of tools up a 3% grade. What he really needs is a V8 powered van to carry his passengers, copter parts, and tool set.

Thomas Magnum, Ford Granada. No private investigator would tail someone covertly in a red Ferrari. And for stakeouts, sitting in a Ferrari for more than 5 minutes would require a month's worth of chiropractic treatment. What Magnum should be driving is an anonymous, boring, and comfortable Ford sedan.

Higgins, Rover P6. Granted, the Audi Higgins drove on the show belonged to Robin Masters. If Higgins had a personal car, it would be the Rover P6. It's old, solid, British, and stuffy. Just like Higgy himself. Plus, there's plenty of room in the back for Zeus and Apollo.


Alfa Romeo Alfa 6 (Sei): The Italian Rolls-Royce

The Alfa Sei is the largest Alfa Romeo sedan ever offered. It's even longer and heavier than the chunky 166. Though the styling was quite bland, it was nevertheless a much-coveted car. Even the Pope had one.

Build quality was sub-par. Many of the 12,000-plus built between 1979 and 1986 died a slow rust-filled death. The original 2.5 liter V6 had a carburettor for every cylinder. I can't decide if the car is a mess or a quirky gift from the gods.

More info at movit (German) and alfa6 (Italian).


Honda Triumph Vanden Plas?!

To Americans, the brand names Honda, Triumph, and Vanden Plas could not be more different from each other. However, in the 80s, they were one.

It all started with the Triumph Acclaim. In 1979, Honda and Triumph agreed to build Honda Ballades (4 door Preludes for us Americans) in Great Britain and call it the Triumph Acclaim.

The Acclaim was significant for many reasons:
  • It was the only model Triumph made between 1981 and 1984.
  • It was the last Triumph model ever made.
  • It was the first Japanese car made in Europe.
  • It began Rover's relationship with Honda.
When Triumph ceased to exist, the next generation Honda Ballade (Civic sedan to us Americans) became the basis for the Rover 200. This is where it got interesting. The Vanden Plas trim included the following:
  • Lucas (!) electronic fuel injection.
  • Connolly leather or velvet upholstery.
  • Power windows and locks.
  • Walnut door inserts.

The fruit of globalization


Alfa Romeo Wagon Estate Break Line-Up









Friday, November 28, 2008

Jacques Chirac & Citroens

That guy really LIKES Citroens...

Citroen ad:

Chirac political ad (?):

Chirac on the street in his C6:


Honda Prelude 4 Wheel Steering (4WS)

The original Honda with four wheel steering

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Japanese sports car engineers were crazy about four wheel steering. The Mitsubishi 3000GT, the Nissan 300ZX, and the Honda Prelude all had it but the respective systems were very different from each other.

Honda's first generation 4WS system debuted in the 1988-1991 Prelude. It was the first production car with the system. Moreover, this generation Prelude was unique in that the system was the only system that was truly mechanical (as opposed to hydraulic or electric) in operation.

This video from a Prelude enthusiast truly captures the essence of the Honda system:

By turning the steering wheel, the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the front ones, only to a lesser degree. When the front ones turn 9 degrees, the rear ones turn 2 degrees. This scenario (small steering input) is anticipated at high speed. The rear wheels turning in the same direction as the front ones improved stability.

With the steering wheel turned further, the rear wheels went back and pointed straight. Turn the wheel further still, and the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction.

At steering wheel lock, the rear wheels are pointed 6 degrees in the opposite direction. This happens most often when parking and making u-turns. The opposite directions of the wheels decrease the turning radius.

The Honda system never truly caught on because the complexity and weight of the extra hardware made any steering improvements from the system negligible.

Footnote 1: The HICAS and Super HICAS steering (Nissan) used hydraulics and electric actuators, respectively. The rear wheels turn in the same direction as the front wheels at medium to high speeds, no more than one degree.

Footnote 2: The 3000GT's system worked like Nissan's. The rear wheels turned at the most 1.5 degrees in the same direction as the front wheels at speeds in excess of 31 mph.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Happy Turkey Day From Salin Palin

Gosh, this lady is clueless.

Gobble, gobble.


Quantum of Solace (2008) Chase Three

Bond and Camille walk out of a La Paz, Bolivia, hotel and get in their Range Rover Sport. He drives. Two La Paz motorcycle cops immediately start following them. They pull the Range Rover over and orders Bond to open the trunk. He complies and they find an almost dead Mathis there.

Bond kills the two cops and Mathis dies in the shootout. Bond dumps Mathis' body and leaves the scene.

B0nd and the Ranger Rover the next day


Quantum of Solace (2008) Chase Two

Bond walks out of a run-down hotel in Port Au Prince, Haiti, carrying a briefcase. At the entrance, Camille pulls up in a gold Ford Ka and orders him to get in. He complies.

The Ka is immediately followed by a local goon on a motorcycle. Camille notices the bike and temporarily loses it in the traffic.

Camille tries to shoot Bond but he escapes. She takes off. The motorcycle guy catches up and asks Bond why he didn't kill her. Bond replies by comandeering the motorcycle. He follows Camille to the docks.


Quantum of Solace (2008) Chase One

This may be one of the costliest chases (in cars used and injuries to stuntmen) in 007 history.

In the opening scene, two black Alfa Romeo 159 sedans full of goons are chasing Bond, who has Mr. White in the boot. The backdrop is Lake Garda in Italy. They enter a tunnel.

The men in the 159s are shooting at Bond. A truck loses control and sideswipes Bond's Aston Martin DBS, tearing off the driver's door. The DBS does a 360. They come out of the tunnel. Immediately, one of the 159s crashes into another truck head-on.

A couple of Italian cops in a Defender 90 join the chase. The three vehicles race down an open pit mine. The cop car loses control and falls off a cliff, barely landing on the Aston below.

Bond finds his gun and shoots at the remaining 159, causing it to go off a cliff. Bond escapes and enters Siena.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

California Missions Tour: Mission San Antonio de Padua (Fort Hunter Liggett)

San Antonio de Padua
Founded July 14, 1771 (3rd mission)

Mission San Antonio is the most remote of the missions. It is located inside Fort Hunter Liggett, a military base. After driving approximately thirty miles through some desolate and beautiful country, I arrive at a checkpoint manned by two soldiers toting M-16s. I got a big pink pass and placed it on my dashboard. As I enter the base, there is a traffic sign warning me of tank crossings.

Mission San Antonio is worth the trip. It is well restored and not spoiled by nearby development. It has lots of cool period artifacts, including an wooden ox cart axle and wine barrels in a cellar.


California Missions Tour: Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad (Soledad)

Nuestra Senora de la Soledad
Founded October 9, 1791 (13th mission)

The Soledad mission was hard to find. It was in the middle of rich farmland, worked by Latino immigrants. There was so much dirt and mud on the road, it was hard to distinguish where the pavement ended and where the fields began.

Aside from the clucking chickens in the mission's front lawn, the area is serenely quiet. Soledad is quite an apropos name. I met an older couple in a Buick who was also visiting all of the missions. The lady was so friendly (and bored?) that she ran over to me in my car to give me tips on the best route to the next mission, along with good restaurants for lunch.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How to Get to Guatemala Without Flying

1. Start at San Diego airport. Ask the nice lady at the information desk about the bus to the Mexican border. She will tell you: You know that 40 to 50 people are shot everyday in Tijuana, right? You did not know that.

2. At Terminal 1, take the 992 bus to Broadway and Kettner.

3. At Broadway and Kettner, take the blue trolley to San Ysidro.

4. Walk the pedestrian skyway and cross the border into Mexico.

5. Forget to have Mexican officials stamp your passport at the border.

6. Have a cab driver take you to the central bus station. The cab driver will tell you that there are virtually no tourists now because of the violence. I later learn that local funeral homes and casket manufacturers are making a killing (sorry).

7. Wander aimlessly in the bus station and learn that from now on, a visit to every public restroom in Mexico will cost 3 pesos. Have Mexican immigration officer randomly stop you. Act nervous and expect to be hosed. Be pleasantly surprised when he stamps your passport and sends you on your merry way.

8. Take an Elite bus for 42 hours to Mexico City's North Terminal.

9. As you exit the Terminal, you will see a sign pointing to a booth for authorized taxis. Pay 75 pesos and get a ticket. Give the ticket to a waiting taxi outside. The driver will take you to TAPO station.
10. Enjoy the nicest bus station you will ever set foot in. Take a 16 hour ADO GL bus to Tapachula.

11. Take a TICA bus from Tapachula. The bus will drop you off at the Mexican side of the border. You will visit the Mexican official, pay him a 200 peso "fee" and walk across a bridge into Guatemala. At the sight of the chaos, poverty, suspicious children, and pushy moneychangers, you wonder if you've made a terrible mistake. Clutching your backpack, the Guatemalan official stamps your passport. You get back on the TICA bus, relieved.

12. About an hour away from Guatemala City, the driver encourages people to get off in the middle of nowhere if their ultimate destination is Antigua. Get off in the middle of nowhere.

13. Make friends with four Swedes going the same way. Cross six lanes of traffic on foot. Realize that you should not have crossed. Cross the six lanes back to where you started. Walk to a sleepy outdoor restaurant. Wait for a chicken bus.

14. Board the chicken bus. Sit next to a nice student, who will welcome you and answer all of your dumb-ass questions about Guatemala.

15. Arrive at Antigua.

My Next Car: The Pontiac G8?

With the current worldwide recession, I highly doubt that Alfa Romeo will be coming State-side anytime soon. That means I won't be replacing my Honda Accord Euro with an Alfa 159 saloon.

So what should I get? I've had my eye on the Pontiac G8 GT for a couple of weeks now. Have you had your V8 today?

The Pontiac G8 is built in Australia and is essentially the Holden VE Commodore. In Britain, it is rebadged as the Vauxhall VXR8. The 6 liter V8 in the Pontiac has 361 hp and 385 lb-ft of torque. It can reach 60 in 5.3 seconds and does the standing quarter mile in under 14 seconds at over 100 mph.

It is, in essence, a poor man's BMW M5. There are no gadgets or electronic wizardry. It's just about cubic inches. The styling is almost awful and there is no manual gearbox option. Plus, the interior is a little chinsy. But man, is it cheap. A new one can be had for U.S. $28,000 (18,721 pounds or 22,392 euros). I just found a used one, with 5,000 miles, selling for U.S. $24,988 (16,707 pounds or 19,982 euros). That's CHEAP! Blame it on poor styling, poorer marketing, and the even poorer U.S. economy.

Fifth Gear: Vauxhall VXR8 versus Lotus Carlton

Pontiac G8 Spyhunter ad


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

2009 F1 BMW

This will take a while to get used to.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Guatemalan Political Signs

Even though the presidential election in Guatemala took place over a year ago, hand painted political signs showing the various parties' logos can still be found all over the roadside. In a perverse way, it is art. It also speaks to the state of Guatemalan politics and the country's history, psyche, and consciousness.

URNG: The principal leftist rebel group during the long civil war. The corn is symbolic of providing the campesinos with land and basic needs like food.

Right-wing Unionist Party.

Winning UNE party: Dove = Peace?

UCN party.

PP, aka Mano Dura (the Hard Hand): Tough on crime.

FRG: The party of Rios Montt. Yes, that Rios Montt.

Photos courtesy Sir Issac Lime.


The Safest And Best Seat On A Bus

I have now logged about 6,000 miles on long distance buses. They include Greyhound (Canada and U.S.), Elite (Mexico), ADO GL (Mexico), Tica (Central America), and Chinita Risuena (a Guatemalan chicken bus, with a tilde over the "n" in Risuena).

This is my assessment of what seats to avoid, and to select.

Front of the bus:
  • Unless there is a curtain between the cockpit and the passenger section, the front seats should be avoided because a) you will be scared shitless when you see how your driver is recklessly driving and b) at night, headlights from oncoming traffic will prevent you from sleeping.
  • If there is a frontal impact, you'll be one of the first to go.
  • Overnight, the driver WILL turn on mariachi music full blast to keep himself (and you) awake.
Back of the bus:
  • If there is a rear impact, you'll be one of the first to go.
  • If there is a bathroom aboard, you will be very uncomfortable with the smell and with people constantly walking by you to use it.
Window seat:
  • If there is a side impact, you will get hurt.
  • If there is a rollover, you will get hurt.
So where is the best seat? The aisle seats toward the middle of the bus. (Results may vary.)

You're welcome.


North America: 84% Complete

My goal has always been to traverse the entire length of the Western Hemisphere by land. Last year, I went from the Bay Area to the Arctic Circle (latitude 66 degrees 33 minutes). I just returned from a bus ride down to Guatemala City (14 degrees 38 minutes).

Thus, I have yet to reach Prudhoe Bay (70 degrees 19 minutes) to the northern end of North America and Yaviza, Panama (8 degrees 10 minutes) to the southern end of North America. According to my rough calculations, I have thus traversed approximately 84% of North America, latitudinally speaking.


Top 10 Cars Available to Mexicans But Not to Americans

While lounging at the TAPO bus station in Mexico City, I picked up an issue of Automovil. In my opinion, it is one of the top three car magazines in the world. Along with new car reviews, it had Formula One coverage, a piece on stolen cars world wide, and even an homage to the Ferrari 400/412!

The back of the magazine had an itemization of all the new cars available in Mexico. Here are ten fantastic cars we unfortunately will never see in the States.

Alfa 159: The most beautiful car on the market today.

Cadillac BLS: The Un-Cimarron Cimarron.

Chevy Tornado: Bring back the mini pick up.

Fiat 500: Will easily outsell the Mini.

Fiat Strada: How come no one ever told me Fiat sold a compact pick up truck?

Ford Ka: This could save Ford U.S. from bankruptcy.

Peugeot 407: The car of choice for French pimps.

Renault Megane: Oddest rear end around.

Toyota Hiace: The ultimate vanpool ride.

VW Crossfox: Unreliable crossover SUV, in a smaller package.