Thursday, November 17, 2011

Warm Fuzz(ies)

Sometimes things just fall into place. This week, out of the blue, I somehow managed to score two fuzz pedals that I have been dreaming of for months/years. In one case, I responded to a guy with a Fulltone ’70 for trade and I happened to have the pedal he was looking for.

In another case, someone contacted me re: a pedal I had listed for sale or trade. And what am I getting? An Analog Man Peppermint Fuzz. Don’t ask what pedal I’m swapping it for. It’s such a deal that you will want to cry.

And to think that most of my pedal board has been assembled thanks to stumbling across a mic preamp being given a way for free on a side street in Pacifica, CA and by purchasing a new-old-stock Mu-Tron Phasor II in 1993 for $125 (and selling it a few years ago for $350)!

By my math, my pedal board would cost just over $1,000 to assemble from scratch. Thanks to a lot of well timed trades, I’ve assembled it for less than $300 out of pocket.

Can’t wait to try the Peppermint and the ’70. And if they don’t work for me, I’ll just trade up for something better. This seems to be the one area in life where I have the midas touch! If only I had the same touch for real estate or stocks…

Friday, November 11, 2011

Kids Music that Doesn't Suck


Once upon a time, Belle & Sebastian meant something different to me. Pre-kids, they were a kick-ass little indie rock band from Scotland. Post-kids, Belle is the princess from Beauty and the Beast, and Sebastian is the crab from The Little Mermaid. Holy crap - how my life has changed. But luckily, I have found a way for them to peacefully co-exist! And yes, I agree that this is an odd post for 11/11/11 - Nigel Tufnel day...

At first, my oldest daughter had great taste in music. In her first few weeks of life, the only thing that could keep her from crying in the car was listening to Turn on Me by the Shins. As soon as the Phil Specter drum beat played, she’d settle right down. Later, the sure fire way to get her to sleep in the car was to play Sky Blue Sky by Wilco (insert joke about Wilco being boring dad rock here, I won’t take offense). She’d always fall asleep mid-way through the noisy guitar solo in Impossible Germany. She had really great taste. And then it ended.

Belle & Sebastian
Shortly after her first birthday, and during a particularly miserable car trip to Hilton Head, we broke down and bought our first “kids music” cd. It was a Backyardigans cd. And as far as kids music goes, it’s pretty good. And it did make for a much more pleasant drive back to Maryland. But then came the “silly songs,” the princesses, the Disney this and the Disney that, we were awash in a sea of aural crap and forever hearing “I don’t want to listen to adults music, I want kids music.”  Side note - Suffering through numerous repeats of Part of Your World has given me much appreciation for my father’s tolerance of Nine Inch Nails and Jesus & Mary Chain that he suffered through for 8th and 9th grade me…

So, imagine my delight last year when my four year-old asked “Daddy, who sings this song?” and I responded by saying “it’s Belle & Sebastian, like the princess and the crab!” She went for it, and said “I love this song!” And it’s not that I dislike the Backyardigans or the Imagination Movers, but I was thrilled when listening to Write About Love became our morning ritual for many a month.

So now, we walk a fine line between kids music and adult music. And thanks to Yo Gabba Gabba and a few compilations we have some kids music songs that are awesome. Case in point, from the Gabba soundtrack, All My Friends Are Insects by Weezer is without a doubt the best Weezer song since the green album, maybe since Pinkerton.

So if you’re up to your ears in kids music, here’s a playlist that can save you. Enjoy. Don't be surprised if the Band of Horses and She & Him tracks end up on my Best of 2011. And the Mark Kozelek track is nothing short of amazing.

All My Friends Are Insects - Weezer

Bunny Hop - The Hollow Trees

Out in Nature - Band of Horses

If You Ever See An Owl - The Terrible Twos

It's Okay, Try Again - The Shins

The Ninjas - Barenaked Ladies

So Long - She & Him

Jump Up! - Imagination Movers

Bedtime Lullaby - Mark Kozelek

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Straight Truth on Mayan Palace - The Restaurants

Dessert at Tramonto
The Straight Truth on Mayan Palace - The Restaurants
The restaurants and wait staff at Mayan Palace are great.

Gong - Gong is Asian Fusion and has a good mix of Japanese noodle dishes, sushi, and other “Asian” food. We ate a light dinner there on our first night and it was delicious. We had steamed edamame and some various maki rolls. The Tabasco roll is simply amazing. I would never have thought to wrap a roll in grilled plantain, but it was nothing short of amazing. There is a sommelier who serves both Gong and Tramonto and he did an outstanding job of recommending a red wine that would overpower the sushi (I wasn’t in the mood for sake and didn’t want to splurge for champagne on our first night). We ended the meal with a dessert of grilled bananas and gingered dark chocolate. YUM.

Creperia – Inside the market/gift shop, downstairs from Gong and Tramonto is a creperia. Most of the crepes are good. The Mexicana (salsa verde, roasted poblano peppers, pumpkin blossoms, etc) and the banana y nutella are out of this world! Don’t miss them.

Balche and Frida’s Mexican Grill – The outdoor cafĂ© by the pool is called Balche by day and Frida’s Mexican Grill by night. Our beach waiter served us everyday and the food is fine. It’s not amazing, but it’s not bad. The grilled fish sandwich is great. At night, when it turns into Fridas, that’s another story. At that point, they begin serving some of the best Mexican food you have ever had (and yes, I have had great authentic Mexican in Mexico and the US, including going to all of the Rick Bayless restaurants).  The Cochinita pibil is out of this world. It’s basically little chunks of pork shoulder, seasoned with achiote, wrapped in banana leaves, and roasted until it almost melts. The green chile sauce at Fridas is some of the best I have ever had as is the mole. My wife and I joked that the chef should offer a cooking class just to teach those two sauces. Other items not to miss are the tamale appetizer (four different types of tamales) and the tacos al pastor. If you get the The Cochinita pibil, consider pairing it with a Mexican red wine. We had a nebbiolo from the Guadalupe Valley that was really good. Fridas is closed on Thursday – I’m guessing to encourage people to do the “Mexican Feast” at Del Lago.

Tramonto – The Italian restaurant is also great. It was our favorite last time, and we saved it for our last night. Our biggest complaint of our trip is that we couldn’t go to every restaurant twice. We saved Tramonto for our actual anniversary and we had a great meal. Everything on the menu sounds amazing and it’s hard to narrow things down. The bruschetta is great. One thing we noticed all week long is that any time we had peppers (red, green, poblano, fresh, roasted, whatever) they had so much more flavor than the peppers we get at home (even more so than the fancy Whole Foods peppers). I don’t think words can really describe the meal we had. Our server was amazing, our wine (a Mexican Merlot) was amazing. Everything was perfect.

Coconut Curry Shrimp at Havana Moon
Havana Moon – They call Havana Moon a Cuban restaurant, but there isn’t a whole lot of Cuban food on the menu. We felt that Havana Moon was the weakest of the restaurants. My wife ordered the pad thai and it was just ok. I ordered the coconut curry shrimp and they were amazing – coconut fried shrimp with a great curry dipping sauce and an asian slaw on the side. Our dessert that night was also a let down. It was called the Coco Cubico (Coconut Cube). You’d think with a name like that you couldn’t lose, but it was bland and boring. Also, the tables and chair at Havana Moon are not very comfortable, the tables are low and the supports cut into your legs forcing you to sit at odd angles. However, the show was amazing – mostly just because it was crazy and we didn’t know there would be a show. Without much warning, a group of dancers busted in doing what could best be described as a seen from Eyes Wide Shut – scantily clad dancers with animal head costumes. Surreal!

Something Fish – The name of this one is escaping me, but tucked in the pool area in the Grand Mayan is a little cevicheria. We ate lunch there one day and had the fish tacos and the smoked marlin burrito. The fish tacos were pretty good. The marlin burrito would have been good if it didn’t have cheese. Then again, we might have blown our appetites on pina coladas and chips…

The Burger Custom Made – hidden in Luxe is a “hip burger joint” that’s all L.A. and South Beach inspired. We never ate there, but some of the burgers sounded pretty good. Next time…

Coconut - Freshly Cut from the Tree
None of the restaurants are “Mexico cheap.” The maki rolls at Gong are in the $8-15 range and entrees are probably $15-40. Crepes are $8-10 (but 3 for the price of 2 from 3:00-9:00). At Tramonto, Fridas, and Havana Moon entrees are $12-50. But that $50 at Tramonto will get you a Chateaubriand. I threatened all week to get it. But something about eating a pound of beef didn’t seem like what I wanted to do on my ten year wedding anniversary. I settled for a lighter dinner, the first cognac of my life, and a great evening.

So all of these things are great, but what really holds it altogether is the staff. The staff at Mayan Palace is friendly and professional. You couldn’t ask for better folks. From the housekeeping staff, to the bartenders, to the beach waiters, to the waiters in the restaurant everyone was friendly and welcoming.

The Straight Truth on Mayan Palace - The Pools

The pools at Mayan Palace are great. There is plenty of room to spread out, the temperature is great. From around 12:00-3:00 at the main pool they play dreadful music. Seriously, who wants to listen to bad techno and dance music in a tropical paradise. I. Just. Don’t. Get. It. During this time, I stay on the beach, plug in the ear buds and listen to Jack Johnson, Iron & Wine, Calexico, and so on.

The pools at the Grand Mayan are also great. We had no trouble using the Grand Mayan facilities with our “lowly Mayan Palace wrist bands.” Maybe because it was the low-season. I don’t know – maybe because it was the low-season? Either way, there are lots of nice, quiet, secluded spots to relax and take it easy.

The Straight Truth on Mayan Palace - The Beach

The beach is beautiful but it is rocky. If a perfect white soft sandy beach is a requirement for you, you need to scratch Mayan Palace off your list immediately. If you can handle rocks and coral with your crystalline blue water then you should be fine. But be warned, aside from a few small sections, you’ll need water shoes for venturing into the ocean. It’s predominantly rock and corral and there are numerous holes where you can easily trip. That said, once you swim out a little ways, there are lots of fish and other ocean life hanging out in these little holes. And if you venture out to the man-made reef (a long row of hollow concrete spheres) you can see even more fish. The ocean was pretty rough on this trip so we had pretty bad visibility but we still saw a lot of parrotfish and other pretty fish.

Man made reef at Mayan Palace

Man made reef

The Straight Truth on Mayan Palace

Tide Pools and Pier at Mayan Palace Riviera Maya

Here’s the deal, Mayan Palace Riviera Maya is much, much, much better than all of the negative reviews on TripAdvisor lead on. But it’s not quite as nice as some of the folks say. But again, this is just my review, your mileage may vary. Here's my review.

And because every circumstance is different, I’ll lay out the facts. My wife and I visited October 16-21 (low season). We were on the 3rd floor of building five (a nice short walk to the beach, pool, restaurants, etc).

We arrived at 2:00 on a rainy  (deluge) Sunday and the lobby was pretty empty. Check-in was slow for the amount of folks in there. I would hate to arrive when a lot of folks are checking in at once. We had e-mailed in advance to ask for a closer building and a room on the third floor.

The Rooms - When we first checked in to our room it smelled a little damp and musty. Once we turned the ac up a little and turned on the fans the smell dissipated. It may have just been because it was so damp outside. When we came back to our room after dinner on the first night, we didn’t notice the *smell at all.
The rooms at the Mayan are nice. They aren’t amazing, but they are pretty good. The beds are super comfortable as long as you like a firm mattress. The linens are middle of the road. They are not luxurious but they are much better than what you get in a typical Hilton or Marriot level hotel. It’s nice the have the kitchenette although we didn’t do much cooking in our room. We did boil water frequently for use as drinking water. I have a pretty bad water habit and I feel guilty going through multiple water bottles per day.
The bathroom at the Mayan Palace is just ok. There aren’t any soaking tubs or Jacuzzis and there is just a single sink. You can’t win them all…

Also, there are no ocean view rooms. Maybe if you were on the third floor of building one, you might be able to crane your neck and see the beach. Aside from that, your view is going to be of trees and other buildings. Sorry. If the view from your room is really important to you, look elsewhere.

And yes, this resort is SPREAD OUT! The last time we stayed here we were in building 9 or 10 and it was a drag to be so far away from the beach and restaurants. I don’t doubt that my review would be less sunny if I was writing it after having been in one of the “way far away” buildings.

The Beach - Read More

The Pools - Read More

The Restaurants - Read More

Oh, about the time share folks. Just say you are not interested and they will leave you alone. If you’re stupid enough to do a time share pitch (anywhere) you get what you deserve. My wife and I fell for one on our honeymoon in Puerta Vallarta. That’s 3-4 hours we’ll never get back. But the economy was better back then and the sales tactics were probably a little lower pressure. Seriously, just say no. You’re on vacation. Don’t waste your precious time for some discounts and a “free breakfast.”

Looking toward Cancun from the Pier
If I had any complaints, it would be about the quality of tequila and margaritas. I’m in Mexico – I expect access to an insane selection of top shelf tequilas and mescals and to margaritas made with fresh juice rather than mix. The basic margaritas are made with mixto tequila and sour mix and they are not that good. I’m sure we could have tracked down a better margarita but that would have required work. They really should have a tequila list and things drinks like the Paloma. But I understand that in a place that big, making drinks by hand from fresh fruit is a little difficult. Luckily I stocked up at the duty-free store and brought home a lovely selection of tequila and mescal and I can make my own drinks. I just can’t enjoy them under a palapa with my feet in the sand….

* Oddly – when we got home from vacation and went to do laundry, we noticed that many of our clothes smelled like the room smelled on the first day. Weird. No worries – the smell washed right out.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Bitter Truth about Blue Moon and Shock Top

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you should have found out by now anyway. Blue Moon and Shock Top are NOT micro brews, or craft brews, or whatever fancy name we are using to distinguish “real” beer from “corporate” beer.

If you like them, that’s great. But don’t think for a second you are drinking beer made by a small group of artisans. Blue Moon is made by Coors and Shock Top is AB-InBev .

And they weren’t created to appeal to your great taste in beer. They were created because the big boys noticed that Sam Adams (that’s a story for a different day), Sierra Nevada, and other “good” beers were starting to take over more shelf space. And god forbid consumers have access to more than just yellow fizzy junk in blue, red, or yellow labels.

Disclaimer: The author has been known to drink Miller Lite on more than one occasion. Especially when it’s hot outside.