Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Happily Stuck in Lodi

Have you noticed A&W root beer ads on TV lately? I'm not sure when the last time A&W had a TV marketing campaign was, but I think they had Mr. T in them, so it's been a while. My first thought was that they were pumping up A&W for its 90th anniversary, after all it was 90 years ago that Roy Allen set up his first roadside root beer stand in Lodi, CA and then partnered with Frank Wright to form A&W. There's a larger trend of nostalgia marketing happening right now: nostalgia sends people back to a happier time, as in a time when there wasn't a recession, your house wasn't in foreclosure, and Mr. T distributed frosty mugs of root beer to all who desired.

I pity the fool who doesn't like this ad

A&W isn't alone in this, even in the soda industry. Pepsi made several moves along these lines recently: first they spent over $1 million to redo their logo into something that looks just like their old logo but has a stripe in the middle that resembles a smile (it also just happens to resemble the Obama campaign logo as well, coincidentally), and now they've introduced several new products, Pepsi Throwback, Mountain Dew Throwback, and Pepsi Natural. The two "Throwback" sodas have retro packaging and - gasp - real sugar. You see, in America, the use of real sugar hearkens back to a happier age. Pepsi Natural goes one step further in that it uses actual kola nut extract in the recipe as well as real sugar (and it comes in a nifty glass bottle).

The new Pepsi Natural

Even if these are crass attempts to get us to spend more money on things we really don't need, anything that brings sugar and natural ingredients back into sodas gets my support. With root beer, you don't need to do anything at all to make it a throwback, the mere mention of it can send people back to hot summer days of their childhood, real sugar or no.

Whether the A&W ads are part of some sneaky nostalgia marketing campaign or not, it is in fact the 90th anniversary of A&W, and to celebrate in a suitably nostalgic way, the owner of the A&W Drive-In in Lodi threw a birthday bash complete with a classic car show, a live band playing retro hits like Dream Lover (and yes, CCR's Lodi), and "7-foot-tall ambassador of fun" himself, the A&W Root Beer Bear. Naturally, I had to go.

Playing up the retro

The 7-foot-tall ambassador of fun

Even without the help of the band, it's physically impossible to go to/through/near Lodi without getting the CCR song stuck in your head. I tried, I really did, but it just crept intro my brain and, well, got stuck.

I'm sure it was somewhat of a different town 40 years ago, but despite what John Fogerty claims, Lodi's really not a bad place in which to be stuck. This is probably getting off on a dangerous tangent, but this is just further evidence that John Fogerty isn't always a trustworthy source. After all, CCR's The Royal Albert Hall Concert album was actually recorded in Oakland, California, I highly doubt elephants were actually playing in the band (tambourines, maybe), and he wasn't born on the bayou like he claimed, he was born in Berkeley, making his twangy "hoyd it through the grape vahn" accent and use of words like "hoodoo" highly suspect.

I suppose if you were "lookin' for fame and foytchun" in the music industry Lodi may not be the place to look, but it is quite a charming little town, especially in the old downtown and the surrounding tree-lined residential neighborhoods. Plus Lodi also has an arch, prettier (albeit less slogany) than the one I saw recently in Modesto.

The Lodi Arch (built 1907), leading to downtown

Lodi City Hall

Classic cars and A&W Root Beer

I don't know much about old cars, but I like them. I can't tell you the difference in the tail fins between a '58 and a '59 El Dorado, in fact I'm only mildly confident they had tail fins at all in those years. Mostly what I can do, and I'm quite good at this, is look at old cars and say, "Oooh, car pretty."

Oooh, Corvette pretty

Oooh, Shelby Cobra pretty

Ooh, shiny engine pretty

Oooh, line long

Given that it was a hot day, and a few thousand people showed up to ogle the pretty cars and drink root beer, there was a long line to get into the A&W. No one minded the wait, and they had plenty of staff on hand, so it went fairly quickly.

Even the A&W Root Beer Bear was on hand to make sure everything went smoothly


Sadly (but sensibly) they were only serving floats in paper cups on the festival day, and big frosty glass mugs greatly improve a root beer float. Still, I'm not one to complain with RBF in hand.

I couldn't possibly pass up getting a commemorative mug

Lodi's actually really close to the Bay Area (so John Fogerty shouldn't have had a hard time getting back home), and the drive through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta is one of the nicest ways to cross the valley. The 100 year anniversary will be 10 years from now — maybe they can line up a CCR reunion concert...

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Cupcake Crawl

For my friend Bianca's birthday celebration last weekend, she came up with a pretty clever celebration idea: a cupcake crawl. In the more traditional pub crawl, you walk from pub to pub, end up having a bit too much beer, have a jolly time, and generally end up feeling pretty awful. For a cupcake crawl, just replace the phrase "much beer" with "many cupcakes" in the previous sentence, and you'll get the picture. To be fair, I didn't feel awful after the cupcake crawl, but by the end of the day the thought of any more sugar was honestly pretty frightening.

Pub crawls are generally easy to organize because, in a city like San Francisco, essentially any neighborhood will have enough bars. Cupcakes are a bit more challenging. Luckily, cupcakes are super trendy these days and the posher neighborhoods of San Francisco have at least as many cupakeries as gelato shops and high-end pet stores, so a cupcake crawl is definitely possible.

The Marina

We started at Kara's Cupcakes in The Marina. Kara's had a huge selection to choose from, about 10 standard and 5 filled cupcakes, all available in normal or mini size. Given that we were planning to hit four more places after this and there were only four of us to start, we couldn't (sadly) try them all so we picked four of the most promising looking cupcakes.

Analyzing the menu at Kara's

Meyer lemon, passionfruit, fleur de sel, and java cupcakes

The fleur de sel cupcake came highly recommended by the girl behind the counter: it was a chocolate cake with a caramel filing, and a chocolate ganache topping sprinkled with flakes of fleur de sel. The salty, sweet, chocolatey flavor on this was outstanding and one of the most interesting things we sampled all day, although my personal favorite at Kara's was probably the passionfruit. I'm a sucker for all things passionfruit flavored — I know that's not the manliest thing to admit, but I just can't help it.

Just a few blocks away from Kara's is Miette, a French-style bakery and candy shop that makes several types of cupcakes (essentially miniature versions of their larger cakes). They had four cupcakes that day: chocolate with vanilla buttercream, chocolate with strawberry buttercream, chocolate "old fashioned" with a marshmallow cream topping, and ginger bread with a cream cheese frosting. We got one of each as well as an expensive but intriguing bacon chocolate bar (Mo's Bacon Bar from Vosges Haut Chocolat) and took them all over to the park at the nearby Moscone Recreation Center to sample.

Cupcakes from Miette and the mysterious bacon bar

All four cupcakes were good, but the ginger bread with cream cheese frosting was the clear winner. The ginger bread cake was moist and spicy, and the cream cheese frosting was rich but not too sweet. I will definitely be back for another of these at some point.

Sadly, I had to destroy the wonderful flavor in my mouth by sampling the bacon chocolate bar. It was much worse than I imagined, and I had imagined it being pretty bad. It had real pieces of bacon in it, but the flavor was pure smoke, and more smokey than any bacon I know of. It reminded me a bit of salty sweet chewing tobacco, or like what I'd imagine gnawing on a bar of Grandpa's Pine Tar Soap might taste like. I almost spit it out. I could see maybe enjoying this with a cigar and a glass of scotch, but I'd personally pass.

Cow Hollow

After mostly recovering from the encounter with the scary clown van, we headed to Cow Hollow to That Takes the Cake on Union St. The annual Union Street Fair was going on last weekend, so we got to watch lots of kids in jumping bouncy castles and getting nauseous on tea cup rides.

Tea cup ride at the Union Street Fair

The Cupcake Crawlers

Despite being a very pretty place run by nice people, I found the whole experience a bit saccharine. First they started with the name "That Takes the Cake," then they gave it the motto "Hand-frosted memories," and then to put the icing on the cake, so to speak, they gave all of their cupcakes cutesy names: the red velvet was called "Gentlemen Prefer Reds," the strawberry was called "The Prom Queen," and last but definitely least the vanilla with chocolate frosting was called "Alfred Hitchocolate." Perhaps not surprisingly, everything we tried was way over-the-top sweet even factoring in the cumulative sugar effect from the previous cupcakeries. Some people will love this place, but it was just too sweet for my taste.

A Prom Queen, a Gentlemen Prefer Reds, and a Lemon Drop

The Fillmore

The next stop on the route was Bittersweet in the Upper Fillmore. On a map, this looks pretty close to Cow Hollow, and in fact it is. But there's another neighborhood in between called Pacific Heights. The Marina is essentially at sea level, Pacific Heights is 370 ft higher up some of the steepest streets in San Francisco, so steep that the sidewalks turn into stairs towards the top. Luckily we had been supercharged by a month's worth of sugar, so we weren't daunted by the climb.

Where did this giant hill come from?

Looking back over the Marina towards Alcatraz

We made it to the Upper Fillmore, and found Muppets

By the time we made it to Bittersweet, we all were so tired of cupcakes that it was almost a relief to find that they didn't have any that day. We still stopped in and I got one of their famous bittersweet hot chocolates, which are incredible but seriously intense - the small cup is honestly a bit hard to finish, and I got a bit zippy like I do with coffee.

Boulangerie, a boulangerie

Our final stop was just down the street at Boulangerie, which happens to be a boulangerie. We were thwarted again - there were no cupcakes to be found, but this didn't make anyone overly sad. Their baked goods looked so amazing however, that I couldn't resist trying their plain croissants. I find it nearly impossible to find a good croissant in the Bay Area, but my search is now over - even after ridiculous amounts of cupcake and a hot chocolate that had my head spinning, this was one of the best croissants I've had anywhere and actually my favorite item from the whole crawl.

To Summarize:

Best Overall Cupcakery: Kara's Cupcakes
Best Individual Cupcake: Gingerbread cupcake with cream cheese frosting at Miette
Best Food Item All Day: Plain croissant at Boulangerie
Worst Food Item All Day: Bacon chocolate bar (Mo's Bacon Bar by Vosges Haut Chocolat)