The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

July 31, 2012

South Lake Union Food Truck Project, Day 2: Kaosamai

Filed under: Food, Seattle — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 7:11 pm

Yesterday’s first venture into the mass of enigmatic food trucks that pop up to serve the denizens of South Lake Union came up with some pretty good results, but I also managed to blow my $10 budget on the first day.  Would day 2 prove any better?  Let’s find out…

The Basics:

  • Food Truck: Kaosamai Thai Cook Truck
  • Cuisine: Thai
  • Website: http://www.kaosamai.com/
  • Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/Kaosamai
  • Twitter: None
  • Yelp: 4 stars, 15 reviews
  • Location: Harrison Avenue, between Boren and Fairview
  • Days: Monday and Friday (also daily at Terry Ave. between Thomas and John, and a full-service restaurant in the Fremont neighborhood)
  • Payment Methods: Cash, LevelUp
  • Sales Tax included in prices: Yes

Food Ordered:

  • Pad Thai with Chicken ($8.00)
  • Total price (with tip): $9.00

Speed:

  • Time to order and pay: About 5 minutes
  • Time to receive food after ordering: 26 minutes

Once again, I set off a few minutes before Noon in order to try to beat the rush.  Apparently I’m not doing a very good job of beating the rush, because once again there was a pretty significant line of people in front of this truck when I got there.  Nonetheless, once it started moving, it moved reasonably fast, and I was able to order and pay within a few minutes.  I was handed a little slip with an order number on it.  I was #41.  A couple of minutes after I ordered, they called #22.  This is rarely a good sign if you’re looking for a quick bite to eat.

In a significant proportion of the relatively few ventures I’ve made out to the food trucks prior to starting this project, I found that it wasn’t unusual to end up waiting quite a while for your food after ordering.  This isn’t too surprising; after all, when you’re working in a relatively small truck that’s going to be crowded with only three people in it, you’re going to be short-staffed almost by definition.  Even so, people tend to get a bit impatient after a while, especially when they’re standing on the side of the road waiting for some sort of food to come out of a big orange truck with a tiny little hole in the side of it.  It is because of some of these previous experiences with long waits that I decided that as I go through the various trucks, I will be timing how long it takes to order and pay after getting in line, and then how long it takes to receive my order after paying.

In this case, I probably didn’t need to bother with the stopwatch, because the ever-increasing crowd of people in front of the place told the story:  the orders were coming in a lot faster than the food was coming out.  Five minutes of waiting turned into ten, ten into twenty, with a slow trickle of orders coming out every few minutes.  In the end, it took 26 minutes from the time I paid until I got my food, which is getting dangerously close to  Salumi territory for epically long waits for food (I tried Salumi once when I worked over in Pioneer Square, and ended up spending 45 minutes in line, I’ve heard it’s even longer these days.)  Although most of the customers in this particular part of the neighborhood are presumably going to be Amazonians without a fixed work schedule, someone with a 30-minute lunch break would be getting back to the office late before they had even taken a single bite of their food.  It doesn’t matter how cool the stuff on your Smartphone happens to be, by the time you’re waiting that long,  And I don’t even want to imagine what would happen if it was raining while everyone was standing out there…

That said, when the Pad Thai I ordered did finally arrive, it was quite good.  The most obvious comparison that is going to be made here is with Thai Curry Simple, which happens to be directly next door to Kaosamai’s Harrison Street location, and is also one of my favorite lunch spots in the neighborhood.  The Pad Thai is probably the item on the menu that I order most often there (although the Massamun Chicken and Panang Chicken are also quite good as well.)  Even so, I think I’d actually have to say that I like Kaosamai’s version of Pad Thai better than Thai Curry Simple’s version, even though I consider them both to be quite good .  The mix of fresh veggies and bean sprouts adds quite a bit to this, and it comes with plenty of peanuts on top (which might actually be my favorite part of the dish, oddly enough.  I can’t say that I’ve tried a whole lot of different Pad Thais over the years, but this one certainly holds its own in comparison to some.

Just don’t plan on being in any hurry to get it.

Kaosamai menu

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July 30, 2012

The South Lake Union Food Truck Project, Day 1: Jemil’s Big Easy

Filed under: Food, Seattle — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 8:00 pm

To kick off the food truck project I’m going to be blogging about here for the next couple of weeks, I went with something I had at least some familiarity with.  I got here a few minutes before the typical Noon lunch hour, and found that there was already a pretty decent line in front of the truck.  Might as well dive in…

The Basics:

Food Ordered:

  • Jambalaya (Medium Size): $5.99
  • Red Beans and Rice (Medium Size): $3,99
  • Total price (with tax and tip:) $11.96

Speed:

  • Time to order and pay: About 5 minutes
  • Time to receive food after ordering: 1 minute

Jemil’s Big Easy is one of the few food trucks in South Lake Union that I have actually tried before, although I have only done so once.  Even so, the first time was good enough to warrant another try, thus I have chosen this one to kick off my little project.  Although I got here a few minutes before noon, the line was already several people deep, but they had someone out writing down orders to pass to the cashier in order to expedite the process of ordering.  Fortunately, things moved along quickly, and  it took just a few minutes in line to pay, after which my food was ready pretty quickly.

Before I proceed, there are a couple of things I would like to note about food trucks in general:  Although most of the food trucks include the sales tax in their prices (presumably because it allows them to work with whole dollar prices), this isn’t always the case, and Jemil’s is one of the food trucks that doesn’t include tax.  Another thing I’ve found is that payment options can be hit-or-miss too.  Cash is obviously king in this business, but some food trucks do actually take cards as well (although I have seen occasionally seen extra fees added for credit cards.)  In addition to this, a handful of trucks also take payment through LevelUp, a Smartphone-based mobile payment system that seems to have popped up in various locations around the neighborhood (and which occasionally does include some extra promos as incentives to use it,) although I’ve never actually tried using it.  Either way, I will be sure to note payment options as I go through these.

In the interest of trying different things I opted for two smaller entrees rather than one large one.  This approach came with the unintended side effect of causing me to already blow past my self-imposed $10 limit right on day one.  Technically if you only count pre-tax prices I was (barely) under the limit.  Anyway,  the one on the left is Red Beans and Rice, while the Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya is on the left.  Each of these also comes in a larger size for a couple dollars more, and based on past experience most people should find one of the larger entrees to be a more than adequate meal.  In addition to these and the customary Gumbo, the menu also has a number of Po Boy sandwiches, as well as various specials.

Of these two items, I would have to say the better of the two was the Red Beans and Rice.  In a lot of different cuisines, I often find that there’s one or two items that tend to be a good benchmark for how well a particular restaurant handles that type of food, and for Cajun I tend to go with either the Red Beans and Rice or the Gumbo.  These particular ones were quite flavorful, and happened to contain the same big chunks of sausage that you see in the Jambalaya .  The Jambalaya also had plenty of sausage and chicken in it, but didn’t seem quite as good for some reason.  In both cases, I was expecting these to be a bit spicier than they were (I suspect they have to cater to local tastes, which means turning down the spices a bit,) and I thought that the Jambalaya in particular would have been a bit better if it was just a bit warmer when it was served.  I was half-tempted to microwave it for a bit.

Ultimately, these are relatively minor quibbles, and I thought the food here was quite good overall.  I’ll definitely have to be back and try more of the menu.  In particular, the Muffaletta looks like it could be quite good.  Anyway, I’d have to say this is off to a decent start,  Hopefully my luck holds out…

Jemil’s Big Easy Menu

July 26, 2012

Fresh Off the Back of the Truck: Introducing The South Lake Union Food Truck Project

Filed under: Food, Seattle — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 12:04 am

In the past six months that I’ve been working over in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, one of the things I’ve found to rant about several times here on this Blog is a distinct lack of choices for lunch on any given day.  Although the situation has improved somewhat over the past few months, in terms of fixed location restaurants (and a food truck or two that parks in the same spot daily I’m still finding that the options within reasonable walking distance  and reasonable price range are sufficient to cover about three decent lunches a week.  On one hand this is a good thing because it’s encouraged me to actually bring my own food to work, which is something I’ve never really been able to get into the habit of doing.  On the other hand, if I forget to bring my own lunch (which happens far more often than not) it makes the daily “What’s for lunch?” dilemma a lot harder than it really needs to be sometimes.

On the other hand, over the past couple of years (and particularly in the last few months) there’s been something of a food truck boom in Seattle, which has brought quite a few of these restaurants on wheels to South Lake Union.  Thanks to the Hipster culture that has elevated these trucks from their old “Roach Coach” status into something that’s now considered trendy, these days it seems that every time you turn around (provided you do so between 11am and 2pm) there’s another one of these things popping up and serving up some sort of vaguely gourmet cuisine you’ve never heard of.  The block across the street from the building I work in is home (for the time being anyway, the land use action signs are already up for someone wanting to turn the place into yet another block of overpriced apartments) to a warehouse belonging to a wholesale florist, which also happens to have several conveniently empty parking lots lying around not being used for most of the day.  In order to make use of these otherwise empty parking spaces, the owners of the property have recently begun to offer the spaces to a variety of different food trucks which show up around 10:30 or so on a daily basis, serve up their wares to the lunchtime crowds, then promptly disappear for parts unknown sometime around 2pm.  Although I have seen as many as eight different trucks in this parking lot at one time (plus several more scattered throughout the neighborhood) most only show up here once or twice a week, so the selection of trucks you find here can and will vary significantly on a daily basis.

That is to say, the whole thing can get just a little bit confusing.

Although I have made the Tacos El Tajin truck that parks daily in front of my building a regular lunch stop, I have only tried a handful of the other trucks in the neighborhood.  To be honest, food trucks can be just a little bit intimidating to someone who isn’t familiar with them.  A surprising number of them look like the types of vans that may or may not have served as FBI stakeout vehicles in a previous life, with little but a hard-to-read menu board and a tiny little window in the side to tell you what exactly is going on in there.  Although it shouldn’t be too hard for most people to look up a website or a Yelp review on their Smartphone, even in a tech-savvy neighborhood like SLU most people aren’t going to be bothered to Google it, and a good number of them are probably going to just forget it and head over to Jimmy John’s for the third time in a week.

Admittedly, on quite a few occasions I’ve found myself being among the ones who are just too confused by the whole thing and head off to find something else (although I think I’d get sick of Jimmy John’s in a hurry if I ate there more than once a week or so),  but especially given the shortage of good fixed location lunch spots in the neighborhood, I’ve been thinking it’s time to give the food trucks a closer look.  Drawing a bit of inspiration from the brave souls over at MSG150 who have made it their mission to try out every restaurant in the International District and report on the results, I intend to spend the next couple of weeks trying out some of the food trucks and blogging about the experience.  For a lot of these trucks, the information available on the Internet tends to be lacking, and although there is a website devoted to covering the Seattle food truck scene, it seems to be purely informational, and doesn’t provide much information beyond the basics of when and where trucks are going to be found.  I’d like to go beyond this and get into a bit more detail.  Here are some of the criteria I plan to follow for this project:

  • For the duration of this project (initially I am planning on 2 weeks / 10 days), I intend to try out a different food truck for lunch each day. 
  • I do not intend to spend more than $10 on any given day.  This means that if a “Typical” meal for a given food truck costs more than that, chances are I’m going to just skip it.
  • I will try to provide as much info on each truck as possible.
  • Technically, hot dog carts (of which there are a few in the neighborhood) are fair game, although I doubt I’ll be getting to any of them, at least initially.
  • I plan to note the number of people in line when ordering, and  time how long it takes to receive food after ordering.  At the same time, note that I will typically also be trying to go early and beat the Noon lunch rush as much as possible.
  • I plan to rate the meal from each truck on criteria of taste, and value, but note that the ratings will largely be subjective.
  • In the interest of trying out new things, I will try to avoid covering the trucks that I already visit regularly (although I may add some of those later.)
  • At the conclusion of the initial two-week run, I may also cover some other trucks on an irregular basis.

If all goes well (and assuming I somehow manage to avoid killing myself with all that street food,) I plan to create a Blog post for each truck that I try out over the course of this project.  On the other hand, it also provides a chance to try out new things.  Maybe I’ll even manage to find enough decent places to cover lunches for four days a week.  Anyway, watch for the start of this next Monday, and if there are any particular recommendations for ones I should try, feel free to let me know.

July 18, 2012

Seriously, How Much Phone Do You Really Need?

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — Brian Lutz @ 12:22 am

All four of the HTC-made smartphones I’ve owned over the years. You can definitely see the family resemblance…

It was a bit more than two years ago on this site that I wrote this post on this site discussing my then recent purchase of an HTC Evo 4G to replace the old and worn-out HTC Mogul I had been using as my phone for the previous couple of years.  That isn’t to say that the Mogul was a particularly bad phone; for its day it was actually just about the best smartphone you could get, although it should be noted that in this particular case, its day just happened to last around two weeks or so, at which point the first iPhone was released.  I think we all know how that one turned out (in fact, if I recall correctly I got a hold of this particular phone second-hand from someone who was switching to an iPhone at the time.)  I don’t recall exactly when I started using the Mogul as my primary phone, but I’m sure a particularly clever web archaeologist could trace the change by going through my old Blog posts and finding out when the photos started going from being merely blurry to being extra-blurry.  Although the camera on the Mogul was theoretically better than the one on my previous phone (a Sprint/HTC PPC6700,) in practice I could never get the blasted thing to focus properly, and as a result I was never particularly satisfied with the photos it took.  Anyway, by now that’s all ancient history.

By the time I replaced that phone it was pretty badly in need of retirement, although surprisingly when I plugged it in and turned it on for the first time in two years to take the photo above it came right up and promptly beeped out a calendar notification for something that happened all the way back in May of 2010.  After some digging through my stuff to find it, it turns out I was able to do the same with the PPC6700 as well, hence the “reunion” photo showing all four of the Smartphones I’ve owned over the years (not shown: a pre-production Palm Treo 700WX I used for about a month as part of some sort of beta test for Sprint, but that’s even more ancient history by now.)  To make a long story short, I must admit that few (if any) tears were shed when it came time to retire the Mogul and replace it with what was at the time the absolute top-of-the-line phone you could get on Sprint (and quite possibly even the best phone on the market that wasn’t an iPhone if you read some of the press at the time:)  The HTC Evo 4G.  It came with a monstrous 4.3 inch screen running at 480×800 resolution, which is quite the step up from the 2.8 inch 240×320 screen on the Mogul.  To be honest, pretty much any halfway decent Android phone would have been a significant upgrade over the Mogul by the time I finally replaced it, but since most phones these days come attached to a 2-year contract it pays to get as much phone as you possibly can for the money, and at the time the Evo seemed to be the best choice by far.

Now that I look back at this purchase two years (plus another month or so) later, I have to say that for the most part I’ve been pretty satisfied with the Evo.  It’s served its purpose well, has given me few technical problems (aside from some random shutdowns I may have been complaining about a couple of months ago, but eventually I traced those to the third-party replacement battery I had installed not to long before the trouble started) and has for the most part been more than capable of performing the various tasks I use a Smartphone for.  On the other hand, battery life has been passable at best and notoriously brief at worst, and I’ve encountered a number of occasions where I could drain the battery in a couple of hours with light-to-moderate usage, which can prove to be pretty inconvenient when you’re miles away from your nearest charger (still better than draining the battery on a two-minute call like my last phone did shortly before I got rid of it, but definitely enough to be annoying.)  Still, in spite of a few relatively minor annoyances here and there, the phone has done its job with a

Even so, the two-year contract signed for that phone when it was purchased has now expired, and as it always does, technology moves inexorably forward.   And although the phones of today aren’t quite the same huge leap forward from the phones of two years ago that the Evo was from the Mogul, the improvements over the last generation are pretty clear.  The screens are getting bigger with higher resolutions, the form factors are getting thinner, the processors are getting faster, and the user interface is getting smoother and more polished.  Unlike the last time I got a new phone where I was practically spending three months counting down the days until the Evo came out so I could finally get rid of my decrepit old Mogul, at this point I still had a phone that was, for the most part, still reasonably functional.  I’m pretty sure I could have easily gotten at least a few more months (if not another year) out of my current phone, so technically I didn’t really even need a new phone.  Even so, a number of tantalizing new choices have found their way onto the market in the past couple of months, and if I was going to be getting a new phone, the decision on which phone to get wasn’t going to be nearly as simple as it was the last time.

Right now, the two kings of the proverbial hill (at least on the Android side of things, your mileage may vary depending on your phone and/or manufacturer preferences) seem to be the Samsung Galaxy S III and the HTC One X, which serve as the flagship models for Samsung and HTC respectively.  In this case, Samsung has opted to retain the Galaxy S III branding on Sprint (which is the first time they have done this, as both the Galaxy S and the Galaxy S II used the Epic 4G branding) while a variation on the base HTC One X has been released on Sprint as the Evo 4G LTE.  Although there are a handful of clear differences between these two phones, most of these are in relatively minor details, and when it comes to the big features there really isn’t enough difference between these two phones to make either one a clear choice over the other.  The Galaxy S III has more RAM and a replaceable battery, but the Evo seems to have better build quality overall, and a better user interface.  Ultimately, I had to try out both phones a number of times to get a feel for each one, but ultimately I decided on the Evo.  Aside from being a logical upgrade path from my previous phone, I also found it a bit easier to use overall, and I thought it looked a bit better too.  I suspect I could have been just as happy with the Galaxy S III if I had gone in that direction, but as I’ve discussed on this Blog before, sometimes when it comes to technology you just have to make a decision and get something, lest you find yourself forever waiting for the next big thing to come out.  Honestly, just because I chose the Evo over the Galaxy S III doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily any better or worse, just that there are two choices out there that are for the most part equally suitable.  In addition to these, there were also a couple of other options in the Galaxy Nexus (which is basically a Galaxy S II running plain vanilla Android, something I might actually consider if I was still working with Android apps on a regular basis) and I could have even gotten an iPhone 4S without having to switch carriers for the first time if I was so inclined (I wasn’t, but that shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone who has known me for long enough.)

So far I’ve only had a few days with the new phone, so I haven’t really had a chance to fully get used to it yet.  Even so, I’ve found that in spite of the larger size and larger screen, it actually seems to be easier to carry around in a pocket, mostly owing to the fact that it’s a fair bit thinner than my previous phone.  I’ve also found that the battery life seems to be better than I Was getting with the old Evo, but that may just be a matter of the phone being newer without a battery that’s been used for most of the last two years.  Owing to having an evolved version of the same HTC Sense user interface that my old phone had, I’ve also been able to largely replicate all the apps and UI layouts from my previous phone, making the transition between the two relatively seamless.  Perhaps at some point I’ll revisit this with some longer term impressions of the Evo, but for now it seems to be doing a pretty good job of things.  But, as mentioned above, technology doesn’t stand still for anyone, and no matter how nice this phone turns out to be in both the short term and the long run, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be having this same conversation again two years from now.

July 8, 2012

Summer Always Arrives with a Bang

Filed under: Holidays — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 11:50 pm

(Note: Most of this post was written on Thursday while on a plane ride, but for the last few days I’ve been mostly offline with Internet access limited to my phone (which I am not crazy enough to try to type up an entire Blog post on,) hence the lateness of this post.  Gotta’ strike while the iron is hot, right?)

If you happen to be reading this right now, then it means that I managed to make it through another Fourth of July with all of my fingers intact, and may have even managed to keep an eyebrow or two. Given the mayhem that tends to ensue at the now customary Vanderhoeven Fourth of July get-together that my Aunt Pam and Uncle Mike host at their house down in Bonney Lake, this isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. Even though we didn’t quite manage to fill the back of a truck with fireworks this year (although that was mostly due to the lack of a truck to employ for the purpose) we still managed to have way too much stuff. And as usual, I made plenty of contributions.

For my part, this year I went for the quality over quantity approach, spending most of my fireworks budget on a couple of boxes of Excalibur shells. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these, they’re just about the biggest aerial shells you can buy as a consumer, and it shows. I also threw in a few giant Slayer rockets for good measure, just to keep things interesting. Ultimately, I didn’t bring a whole lot of stuff (at least not compared to last year’s trunkful of chaos) but between my stuff and the stuff everyone else brought, we were still lighting stuff off for hours. Even lighting the things off 3 or 4 at a time, 48 Excalibur shells is still quite a bit of bang for the buck (and given the number of bucks involved, that is quite a lot of bang indeed.)

Even so, when compared to what the neighbors were setting off our fireworks haul looked pretty puny on comparison. They had a whole rack of mortar tubes set up, and we’re firing as many as 15 of the things off at a time, and throwing in the big 500 gram cakes in between for good measure. And even their stuff was dwarfed by what e people a few houses over across the main road were firing off. I don’t even want to know how much money some of these people are spending on this stuff. I have to figure that between all the different who bring fireworks for our party every year we have to be lighting off at least a few hundred bucks worth of stuff, but some of these people have to be spending well over a thousand bucks on their Fourth of July displays. Not that I’m complaining, it makes for quite the impressive show when I get a few seconds to watch in between lighting off my own stuff.

One of these years I would be tempted to jut let someone else take care of the lighting, find a nice comfy chair and just watch, but to me the lighting stuff is the fun part. It’s probably one of those things hardcoded into the Y chromosome that as to do with asserting dominance over fire and things like that, but there’s something that’s just primally satisfying about watching something go up and blow up and knowing that it’s your doing (or your fault if it ended up on the neighbors’ roof, but that’s another story) that you don’t quite get from merely watching. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy watching fireworks (I actually do when circumstances permit). The pros can put on some pretty impressive displays, including one in Downtown Bellevue that I understand can be quite good, but to me the Fourth of July is my one chance during the year to blow stuff up and (usually) not end up having awkward conversations with the police. And I don’t plan to let an opportunity like that go to waste if I can help it.

Even so, as I have participated in the big Vanderhoeven Fourth of July blowouts over the past few years, I’ve found that my approach to buying fireworks has changed. For example, as much fun as it is to have a bunch of stuff to light off, I do think that there’s a point where it gets to be too much. For example, the big bottle rocket packs give you plenty of stuff to light off, but at some point you’re going to find that you’ve already lit most of the big stuff, and you’ve still got a ton of the tiny little bottle rockets, and it would take far too long to light the things off.  Eventually the neighbors are going to be lighting off huge 500-gram cakes and big barrages of shells and you’re going to be trying to burn off all the dinky little bottle rockets, and probably feeling just a tad inadequate in the process.  In this case, it almost seems like a “less is more” situation, where we would be better off  with smaller quantities of bigger stuff, but at the same time, if I’m going to spend $50 or more on a single item at the fireworks stand, it better at least have more than one fuse.  On the other hand I would be seriously tempted to try out one of those huge 100o-shot Saturn Missile batteries or a 16,000 firecracker roll just for the sheer audacity of the whole thing  if the things weren’t so dang expensive (we actually did a couple of 300-shot batteries last year, and at least one this year.)  When it all boils down it’s basically a slightly fancier way of burning a $100 bill than, well, burning a $100 bill, but the neighborhood doesn’t usually applaud that one at the end.

Anyway, with the Fourth of July festivities out of the way, it’s time to get on with the business of enjoying the Summer, and there looks to be plenty on the schedule…

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