Saturday, January 9, 2010

Clooney goes up, up and away!

After our visit to Islands, we went to see UP IN THE AIR. We had planned on seeing AVATAR in IMAX 3-D, but it was sold out (of course). So, we went with our second choice. We still haven't seen AVATAR, but UP IN THE AIR should have been our first choice all along. The story, directing, and acting definitely make UP IN THE AIR, one of this year's best films.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham - a guy that spends a lot of time up in the air. Last year, he spent 322 days on the road, which meant 43 "miserable days at home". He flies from city to city firing people. His own family cannot count on him to come through when they need him the most. He is completely unfocused. Enter Alex (Vera Farmiga). She is Ryan's female doppelganger. They both have the same penchant for collecting cards of the most exclusive frequent flyer, rental car and hotel loyalty programs. This leads to a steamy love affair and ultimately the humanizing of Ryan.

Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is the new kid on the block. Ryan is tasked with showing her the ropes. She wants to ground Ryan and all of his counterparts by bringing his company into the 21st century. She pitches an idea to fire people over the internet. This would mean an end to Ryan's lifestyle and his quest to be the seventh passenger to reach an unimaginable number of frequent flyer miles. Although she is initially his nemesis, she ends up being part of his redemption.

The basic theme of this little story is the redemption of a man's soul that doesn't even know he's lost it. Jason Reitman does a great job interpreting Walter Kirn's novel of the same name. It is a nice follow up to JUNO. The dialog is well scripted, and it as funny and moving as you can get nowadays. Jean and I both agree that he could have taken this film in an entirely different (aka Hollywood) direction, but he kept it honest. That's what makes this film great instead of just good.

Some of the more poignant scenes include cameos from Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons. They are the real side of what is happening to America, and as a fellow member of the unemployed, I felt their pleas. Ryan is very smooth with his ability to nudge them in the direction they need to go - towards acceptance. The wedding of his sister Julie (Melanie Lynskey) to Jim (Danny McBride) illustrates both his failure to live a "normal" life, and his talent to guide people in the right direction. Hopefully, this review will guide you to see UP IN THE AIR before it wins all of the awards this year.

UP IN THE AIR earns 4 popes out of 5.

Islands - We're back baby!

Sorry it's been so long since our last entry. We've been a bit busy. Some good news and some bad news, but we'll just focus on the best news before the review. Jean and I got married last month (12/12/09) in Las Vegas! And since it is a new decade, we should probably get back to blogging about the things we like and don't.

Before we saw UP IN THE AIR the other day, we went to Islands. The one we visited is located on 101 East Orange Grove Avenue in Burbank. It is very typical of the chain. The restaurant has (get this) an island theme. No, really - it's true! Birds of Paradise decorate the outside of the establishment. Inside, the workers wear Hawaiian shirts and surfing memorabilia adorn the walls. The menu contains Kahuna, Wave and Pipeline references. Surf's up dude!

Jean and I have decided to start the year off eating a little (a lot) better than usual. We are currently observing South Beach Phase 1, and we are doing quite well. So, we had to find something that fit into this very restrictive diet. Sandwiches (bread) was definitely out as were the Soft Tacos (tortillas). To be honest, most of the Salads have bad carbs too, but we were going to do our best to stick to the diet as best we could. All of the salads are served with bread, but we asked that the server keep the bread for somebody that might actually need it.

I had the KAANAPALI KOBB. This consists of Grilled & chilled chicken breast, crumbled bacon, fresh avocado, tomatoes, chopped hard cooked egg, scallions, bleu cheese crumbles & lettuce tossed w/kobb dressing. There was nothing bad about the salad, but there was nothing to write home about either. It was a typical chain restaurant salad.

Jean had the CHINA COAST. This usually contains Grilled & chilled chicken breast, lettuce, carrots, snow peas, water chestnuts, fried noodles, sesame seeds, mandarin oranges & scallions w/sesame dressing. To keep on the South Beach diet, she had them 86 the carrots, fried noodles and mandarin oranges. This left an even more drab salad than usual, but dieters can't be choosers, can they? Actually, restaurants should provide more options, and I would love to see a local eatery serve a South Beach or Zone diet menu. If one exists, please let me know.

Due to the fact that we really cannot recommend people to go to or stay away from Islands, they earn 3 Popes.

Monday, June 22, 2009

La Unica

Ah, what can I say about La Unica? This is a little hole in the wall in Santa Maria I've been going to for litterally 20 years at least. I first found it when I worked in a pizza joint next door to it and we'd get lunch there to break up the monotony of pizza every darn day. They have the usual Mexican food; tacos, burritos, tostadas, etc, but everything just tastes really good. The beans have lard in them like real refried beans should, the salsa is hot, the meat all has a lot of flavor. I normally get chicken, but I've had the beef also. We were in Santa Maria for my birthday and that Saturday (June 6th) we were out and about all day and finally back in town decided we were starving and couldn't wait for dinner to eat. So we stopped at La Unica to get something. Now, I'd been intending to take Sean there the last few times he came home with me but we never made it there. This time we finally made it and since we didn't want to eat anything too big we decided to share a burrito. We'd just had a supposedly world famous burrito at Freebirds the day before, but this one was better than that by a mile (in my opinion). It was a Tri Tip burrito and the meat was really good, nice sized chunks with beans and rice and salsa. The burritos there are HUGE, usually I have left overs and even sharing I could barely finish my half. Karla got a quesadilla because there's honestly not much a veggie can get there; as I mentioned the beans have lard. We also got a taco to take home to my mom as a snack. Sean really liked the burrito and wants to go back to try something else next time we are in town. I can honestly recommend them to anyone who likes unpretentious, good Mexican food that is reasonably priced. They are located at 2350 South Broadway in a shopping center that also has a Starbucks, the phone number is (805) 346-2433 but they don't have a website for me to link to. Check them out if you are in town, you won't be sorry!
They also get 4 our of 5 Monkees!

Vieni Vai Trattoria

For my birthday weekend we drove up the coast to Santa Maria, stopping for lunch at Freebirds in Isla Vista which Sean already reviewed. For dinner Friday night (my actual birthday, June 5th), we went into SLO. I really had no idea what I wanted for dinner, but Italian sounded good, plus they normally have some vegetarian options and my friend Karla who was with us is a vegetarian. We walked around Higuera for quite a while; there was an event going on called Art After Dark, many galleries were still open and there was live music in a lot of the bars and pubs. We finally decided to eat, we were all starving by then and we happened upon Vieni Vai Trattoria. It wasn't overly crowded and we were able to be seated right away. Our waiter was an older gentleman and he was one of the best servers I've had recently. He was very friendly and helpful without hovering too much. I wanted a glass of wine so he made a few suggestions and I ended up having a Sangiovese that was quite good. We ordered the Mozzarella ala Caprese salad to share as an appetizer along with the bread they give you. Both were really good, the cheese was soft and mellow, the tomatoes were perfectly ripe and the bread had a nice salty crust with a slightly chewy interior. For my entree I had scallops with fettacini alfredo and veggies, Sean had a dish that included about 5 different kinds of meat including a small pork chop, steak, etc, also with a side of pasta and Karla had the Gnocchi a Modo Tuo with gorgonzola sauce. Entrees come with soup or salad and since we'd already had the caprese salad we chose soup which was a really tasty lentil soup. As for the entrees... all I can say is that my scallops were beautiful; large and perfectly cooked, swimming in a butter sauce, they were delish. Sean's meat extravaganza was good, he barely was able to eat it all and Karla really enjoyed her gnocchi; she let me taste and the sauce was awesome. Then I mentioned that it was my birthday and our waiter told us he wouldn't be showing us the menu; he then brought out a piece of Tiramisu with a candle in it and they sang Happy Birthday to me. And that tiramisu, oh my gosh, it was SO good. I've had a lot of different versions and often it's a bit dry or the marscapone overpowers the other flavors, but this was not like that. It was really moist, the bottom layer almost drippy with liquor and cappaccino and just the right amount of marscaponi. Such a nice dinner and it's not even overly pricey to eat there. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes Italian food and happens to be in San Luis Obispo.
Here's the link to their website:
And my rating is Four Monkee's!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

La Baguette - Bahn Mi virgin no longer

My good friend and neighbor wanted to get some Vietnamese sandwiches the other day. Being the adventurous soul I am, I decided to tag along and try them. Although I grew up a short distance from Little Saigon in Orange County, I've only recently had Pho, and that was it for my experience with Viet cuisine. We went to to find one of Reseda's hidden treasures - La Baguette.

The restaurant is located in an area of Reseda that has quite a few Asian, especially Vietnamese, businesses. Upon entering the establishment, I came face to face with a most imposing menu. There were 40 plus Vietnamese named items to order. Fortunately, all of the items had spiffy English translations underneath. The guy running the counter was friendly and helpful, so I was able to figure out what I wanted. I ordered something called banh mi thit nuong which is a grilled pork sandwich. I got it mild, so it contained pickled radish and cilantro. Fittingly, it's served on a warm baguette. It was pretty darn tasty. We also got an appetizer - shrimp flakes on beans, served on a steamed rice pad. This was just okay. We also got a nice little dessert (sweet sticky rice and adzuki beans) and two drinks - all for $10.50!!! You can't get something this good for two people for this price anywhere but at a place like this.

Good tastes for a good price - La Baguette deserves 4 Popes.

Date Night at the Academy Theater

Jean recently introduced me to the local discount movie theater. The Academy Cinemas in Pasadena have a great offer on Wednesday nights. You get two admissions, two popcorns and two sodas for $10! Make no mistake, this isn't the Arclight. The seats do have handy-dandy cup holders, but that's about where the frills end. Most times we've gone to this theater, we have purchased our tickets at the snack bar. It seems to be a two person operation (one projectionist and one popcorn/soda/ticket seller). Nevertheless, we can literally see five movies at this theater for the price of one movie at the local megaplex. These aren't first run movies, but we have seen some pretty good flix. Which brings us to MONSTERS VS ALIENS.

Most people saw this movie in 3-D, but the Academy Theater did not show this feature in 3-D. That being said, I doubt we missed much by seeing it in 2-D. Most 3-D movies have the inevitable sight gags of something coming out of the screen, and this did too. They were so obvious, that you knew where they were even in 2-D. In this animated action-comedy, Reese Witherspoon voices Susan Murphy, a bride-to-be that is hit by a radioactive meteorite. This makes her turn into the 49-foot-11-inch Ginormica. The government (headed by General Monger - Keifer Sutherland) holds her and other monsters in a detention facility. Here she finds The Missing Link (Will Arnett), Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie in his non-American accent) and B.O.B. (Seth Rogen).

Apparently the meteorite that hit Susan is worth a lot to Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson). He sends an alien fleet to Earth to take back that which he desires. General Monger unleashes his monsters against the aliens to start the battle that the title suggests. There are some funny moments and good animated action. It was particuarly humorous to hear Mr. Laurie's accent, and Seth was doing his usual pot laugh. All-in-all, I would recommend for home viewing if you don't have a discount theatre near you. MONSTERS VS ALIENS earns 3 Popes.

However, Date Night at the Academy Theaters gets 4 out of 5 Popes.

Freebirds - The Chipotle of Isla Vista

On a recent trip to Santa Maria, we decided to stop by Freebirds on recommendation from a bunch of online peeps. Upon entering, I noticed that it had an assembly line production much like Chipotle Mexican Grill. So much so, that it's pretty obvious where they came up with the idea.

They have 2 different size burritos in the beef, chicken or vegetarian variety. Our friend Karla is a vegetarian, so this was a bonus for her. To this, you can add Guacamole (free on the veggie; extra on the meat burritos) and a number of sauces and/or fillers (rice, beans, cilantro, etc.). I chose a regular steak burrito with beans, pico de gallo and cheese. Jean ordered a regular chicken burrito with guacamole, beans, rice and salsa. For the drink, I chose Horchata. They sprinkled cinnamon on top which was nice. Behind the register was a sign letting people know that "Last Call" for beer was 11PM and "First Call" was 8AM. I've rarely seen a "First Call" posted let alone in a fast food joint. Perhaps this is why people love this place so much.

The walls are covered with pictures of people from around the world wearing Freebirds t-shirts and bemoaning the fact that they can't get a good burrito in places like the Great Wall of China and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. My attention kept going back to these pictures as I started in on my burrito. While tasty, I simply was not blown away. The way that my friends had built it up, and clearly the folks on the wall agreed, I thought this was going to be a life altering experience. Nope. It was just a good burrito, not a great burrito. In fact, I didn't notice much of a difference in taste between a Freebirds and Chipotle burrito. If Chipotle started serving beer and put pictures of co-eds raving about their food on the walls of their restaurants, I don't think Freebirds would have the mystique that it has. Meh.

The food was fine, the price was fine, Freebirds just isn't worth raving about IMHO. So, it earns 3 out of 5 Popes.