Stick to baseball, 7/8/17.

For Insiders this week, I previewed the Futures Game and broke down some of the worst omissions from the All-Star rosters. I held a Klawchat on Friday.

On the non-baseball front, I reviewed the high-strategy boardgame Great Western Trail for Paste this week. I also have a new piece up at Vulture looking at how the TV show Orphan Black has used boardgames as an integral part of several episodes.

Thanks to everyone who’s already bought Smart Baseball; sales spiked this month between Father’s Day and the positive review in the Wall Street Journal. I’ve got book signings coming up:

* Miami, Books and Books, today at 3 pm
* Harrisburg, Midtown Scholar, July 15th
* Berkeley, Books Inc., July 19th
* Chicago, Volumes, July 28th, 7:30 pm
* GenCon (Indianapolis), August 17th-20th

If you’re with an independent bookstore and would like to host a signing, please contact Danielle Bartlett at HarperCollins; we’re trying to accommodate everyone we can within my work schedule. I’m talking to one store about a signing/talk in Brooklyn (along with another author) in August or early September.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 12/31/16.

No Insider pieces and no Klawchat this week, between the lack of MLB activity, a little holiday-related travel, and me just generally taking it easy this week. I did review the boardgame City of Spies: Estoril 1942 for Paste, and have reviews coming up for Doom, Kodama, and Inis.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

  • Texas is making rapid progress in becoming the nation’s worst backwater, from anti-gay laws to wiping out abortion clinics to reducing environmental protections to a statewide cut in special education resources, as detailed in this Houston Chronicle investigative report on how tens of thousands of disabled children in Texas aren’t getting the education help they deserve.
  • This New York Times profile on an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD who was convicted of a home invasion highlights how little we do for soldiers returning from active combat duty, and how costly the war in Iraq has been in human lives.
  • I thought the Telegraph had the best piece on George Michael’s career, life, and death at age 53, possibly the result of a heroin addiction. If you haven’t heard his 1990 album, Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1, it stands up incredibly well today for its mixture of styles that, at the time, was seen as a disappointment by fans who wanted him to remain a bubblegum pop star. And the same publication also wrote how horrible Gene Kelly was to a 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds during the filming of Singing in the Rain, and how Fred Astaire came to the rescue.
  • Security expert Bruce Schneier, who coined the term “security theater” to refer to all the things we do to appear to make our lives safer, points out that TSA Pre-Check also won’t work, as it just provides a second way for a would-be terrorist to beat the system and get on a plane. He links to a former TSA administrator’s post explaining Pre-Check’s vulnerabilities, but the two disagree on the solution – Schneier wants less pre-flight screening for everyone, rather than for a select few, saying that terrorists are going to pick ‘clean’ operatives no matter what we do.
  • This longread on Olympian Debbie Thomas’ descent into mental illness and poverty is from March, but I just found it this week and it’s one of the best and most awful stories I’ve read in the last few months. Thomas won a bronze medal in Calgary in 1988, became a doctor, but has lost everything in the last few years as a result of bipolar disorder.
  • Donald Trump took credit for Sprint’s decision, made in April, to add 5000 jobs in the U.S., and here’s a partial list of media outlets who repeated his lie in headlines without pointing out its untruth. Yes, there’s more to an article than a headline, but I know from experience many people will read the headline and then move along … but will still send me an angry email about a headline I didn’t write. (Editors write headlines, not writers.)
  • A New York Times investigation found rampant bribery among Homeland Security officials charged with protecting our borders. I doubt there’s a simple solution to this: no private or public entity will pay agents more than defeating the security is worth to those trying to do so.
  • The same Russian hacker group that has been accused of trying to influence our election placed malware on a computer at the main electric utility in Vermont, raising concerns about an attack on our infrastructure.
  • Meanwhile, the Russian government has also been supporting far-right movements across Europe in an attempt to destabilize EU states, finding success in Hungary, Estonia, and Bulgaria, along with the rise of the neo-Nazi National Front Party in France.
  • “More than a third of the almost 200 people who have met with President-elect Donald Trump since his election last month, including those interviewing for administration jobs, gave large amounts of money to support his campaign and other Republicans this election cycle.” So begins this Politico story on the rising kleptocracy in Washington, where money buys you direct access like we haven’t seen in decades (under either party).
  • Another neo-Nazi group is planning an armed march in Whitefish, Montana, where its founder’s mother lives. There’s more background, and information on the community’s response, in this audio piece from NPR, which describes businesses putting menorahs in windows to show support and solidarity this week.
  • Jane Coaston of looks at the roots and insolubility of the Syrian civil war.
  • New York issued the first (known) birth certificate for an intersex person – that is, one that states the person’s sex as “intersex,” referring to someone born with physical and genetic characteristics of both sexes, often including sexual organs. This is law catching up to science, but I ask you, North Carolina and Texas and Mississippi and every bigot out there trying to make life miserable for people unlike you: What bathroom would you like her to use?
  • In 2018 and 2020, remember how the Republicans stole a Supreme Court seat by refusing to even hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, nominated to fill that vacancy by President Obama.
  • The political crisis in Burundi, sparked by the questionable re-election of Pierre Nkurunziza to a third term as President, was not helped when he hinted he might run again in 2020. The Burundian constitution limits the president to a single re-election, and his decision to run roughshod over that clause led to 500 deaths and over 300,000 refugees leaving the country.
  • An open letter from 23 activists, many of them Nobel laureates, calls for the UN Security Council to stop ethnic cleansing in Burma against the Rohingya minority – and criticizes Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi for her inaction on this issue.
  • That Gambian election a few weeks ago that appeared to end the tyrannic rule of President Yahya Jammeh? Yeah, well, so much for that, as Jammeh is trying to annul the results and declare himself the winner. Senegal, which surrounds Gambia on all but the latter’s tiny coastal border, has said a military intervention is only a “last resort.”
  • Fortune looks at the recent spate of frauds among tech startups, asking whether this is a growing trend giving the amount of VC money flying around.

Austin eats.

Getting to Austin even for just a couple of days was a huge treat for me, as it’s one of the country’s great food (and cultural) centers, yet my travels have rarely taken me there, since UT has produced just one pick in the top five rounds since 2011, and the high school talent in the area has been relatively weak. I think I made the most of my time there, hitting the country’s best barbecue joint, the restaurant run by one of the most dominant Top Chef competitors ever, and a fantastic third-wave/direct-trade coffee roaster all in one twelve-hour stretch.

Franklin BBQ has earned vast acclaim as the country’s best barbecue joint, first coming to my attention in 2011 when Bon Appetit gave it that title, although BBQ guru Daniel Vaughn was a few months ahead of BA. Vaughn, who tweets as @BBQSnob, still rates it as the best Q in Texas (which, by his definition, makes it the best Q in the country).

Franklin’s brisket is the best I’ve ever had, in every aspect. It’s salty, smoky, peppery, and most importantly, fatty, so it’s moist throughout and each bite just melts when it gets the heat of your mouth to break it down. I’ve had very little brisket that’s even close to Franklin’s – Little Miss in Phoenix and 4 Rivers in Orlando are the only two that might come close – but this is on its own level. There’s plenty of bark on each slice, and a thin but clear layer of fat underneath it, but the fact that the meat itself was still so moist was the great separator. Once smoked brisket dries out, you might as well skip the meat and go for tofu. Franklin’s brisket was perfectly moist and yet still hot when it was cut.

At Franklin BBQ with @lanaberry

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

Lana Berry (@Lana) was my dining buddy for the day, so we split an enormous platter of more food than we asked for – we had the “Last Man Standing” paper from our two-hour wait in line, signifying that we were the last people guaranteed to get served, which somehow ended up with us getting a lot more food than we ordered – including four different meats. The sausage, made to pitmaster Aaron Franklin’s recipe by an outside vendor, was suffused with smoke flavor, deep pink throughout, seasoned with some black pepper but not so much spice that it overwhelmed the smoke. The gigantic pork spare ribs – seriously, those had to be some mutant hogs – are more aggressively seasoned with salt and black pepper, and the meat still had some tooth to it even though it slid right off the bones. Lana and I agreed that the turkey was the meat to skip on the tray – it can’t hold up against everything else we tried. (Franklin also serves pulled pork, but it was gone before we reached the counter.)

The sides are all strong, although I can’t say I’d go wait two hours for any of them. I thought the potato salad was the best of the three, as it was lightly sauced with a mustard/mayo combination, and the potatoes still had some tooth to them. The beans aren’t the sickly-sweet BBQ beans I’m used to seeing at Q joints; they’re served with chunks of meat in a spicy broth, a much better match for salty smoked meat … but my subconscious kept looking for rice to go with it. The cole slaw was freshly made and crunchy, probably best served in the “Tipsy Texan” sandwich that puts the slaw right with the brisket. And then there are desserts, four different options of single-serving pies, including a banana bourbon pie in a vanilla wafer crust and a Texas pecan tart in a true shortbread-style tart crust, both excellent although I’d favor the pecan tart even though I’m not normally a fan of pecan pies (they’re usually too sweet).

Lana got in line for us both around 10:15 am on a cool but sunny Thursday morning, and we waited over two hours to get our food, so you need to line up pretty early even on a weekday. My suggestion would be to go with friends and share a lot of brisket with a few sausage links and some pork ribs as your main sides, with some potato salad just to pretend there’s a vegetable involved.

After a hard afternoon of watching Kyler Murray DH for Allen HS in 40-degree weather, Lana and I went for an epic meal at Qui, the ~40-seat restaurant run by Top Chef Season 9 winner Paul Qui. (Sarah Grueneberg, the runner-up to Qui that season, is opening her first restaurant, Monteverde, in Chicago this summer.) Qui, pronounced “key,” has just two menu options, an omnivore’s tasting menu for $65, and a vegetarian one for $55, each of which has seven listed courses and can come with wine pairings for another $45 or so. We both did the omnivore’s menu (without booze), and it was among the best meals I’ve ever had anywhere, and might have been the best value when you consider the quality of the inputs and the execution.

The first course was a gazpacho with cured curls of foie gras, PX sherry gelee, chunks of diced pear (I think), and house-made marcona almond milk as the liquid, an outstanding combination of flavors and textures when you got every element in one spoonful, particularly as the finely shaved foie melted into the almond milk to provide a huge hit of umami without the slight yet distinctive liver flavor of foie. (I say this as someone who’s never quite warmed to foie gras the way most food lovers have.) The second course was a finely diced bluefin tuna tartare with cucumber curls, smoked trout roe, and beef bone marrow, where the cucumber surrounded the roe and sat on the tuna to resemble a cross-cut bone with marrow in it, with the actual marrow served on the side like a condiment to the main dish – although bluefin tuna is so luxurious that it needs little but salt to bring out its flavor. That was my least favorite dish of the night, which isn’t a criticism considering how good the rest of the courses were.

Third was the fried chicken you may have heard Lana raving about – it was marinated in a Thai-style green curry, sliced very thinly, and came to the table smoking hot, served on a smoked oyster aioli with dots of egg yolk and a sprinkle of sal de gusano, a blend of sea salt and dried, toasted, ground agave (maguey) worms. It was like no fried chicken I’ve ever had before, tasting very little of chicken and more of all of the potent seasonings around it, with grade-80 crunch to the breading and a bright, herbaceous, lightly spicy kick from the curry paste.

The fourth course was the stunner – yellowtail seared tableside on binchōtan wood, served with a midorizu (Japanese green vinegar, made with rice wine vinegar and grated cucumber) and edible flower dressing. The server said the yellowtail was “cured,” but I think she meant lightly aged as the fish had no discernible seasoning; it was simple, incredibly high-quality fish, which just kissed the coals briefly on one side to get a touch of char and ash and then moved directly to the dressing. The presentation is amazing – there’s something unreal about seeing a miniature grill with glowing logs arrive at your table, then to have your fish cooked on it for a few seconds – and the results kept the flavor of the fish at the front, using the acidity of the dressing to accentuate that flavor. As much as my cynical side tried to tell me that the binchōtan was for show, the fish benefited greatly from the smoky (yet smokeless, as the wood used for this type of grill lets off virtually no smoke at all) notes added by the dusting of ash on each slide. If you enjoy food as experience, this was your course.

Somewhere in here we received a “gift from the kitchen,” an unlisted course that I think everybody gets, a “broken rice porridge” (that is, congee, or jok) with egg yolk and little cubes of crispy pork, which I think was cheek, as well as black vinegar. It’s apparently comfort food in southeast Asia, but on a very cold night in south Texas it hit the spot with its temperature and the sweet-savory hits from the pork. The fifth course was maitake mushrooms coated in a pork blood sauce with red onions, pickled garlic, seared Brussels sprout halves, and henbit, an edible weed native to Europe, highly savory but a little overshadowed by the slightly metallic taste of the blood (and I do like some blood dishes, like black pudding). Next up was the final savory course, the ‘burnt ends’ of braised Wagyu short ribs served in a kimchi broth with bits of kimchi, nori (toasted seaweed), leek, and turnip; as a person who’s never met a decent short rib he didn’t like, I was shocked to find the best part of the dish was the kimchi broth, which did more than just complement the beef but brought out its meatier notes with a combination of sour and umami flavors.

The dessert course had a quenelle of goat milk ice cream served over a coffee-cashew semifreddo (like a frozen mousse) with a thin layer of chocolate genoise underneath, with a huckleberry compote and bits of shaved chocolate over the top. Lana was considering asking the server to send about six more to the table. The most impressive aspect of the dish was the way nearly all of the elements worked together to create the sense of other flavors that weren’t on the dish – for example, a stronger cocoa flavor than you should have gotten from the minimal chocolate involved, or the peanut butter-and-jelly nod of the huckleberry with the nutty semifreddo.

That was a $100 or so meal in a larger city, and Qui could probably charge more and still get it in a wealthy mid-sized city like Austin; I’m glad he doesn’t, as it makes the meal accessible to a few more folks than it otherwise would be, even though $65 is still out of the price range for many folks. It’s an amazing value for a splurge meal that is as much an experience as an a culinary tour de force.

Cuveé Coffee is a third-wave, direct-trade roaster that serves several outlets around Austin and also operates its own coffee shop on 6th just east of downtown and down the street from Qui; they offer two espressos each day, their Meritage blend and a rotating single-origin offering, as well as various pour-over options, teas, and pastries. I tried espressos from both their Meritage and their Laguna Las Ranas beans from El Salvador, each very different from the other but both superb, lightly roasted to preserve the distinct characteristics of the beans. I preferred the Laguna because it was more idiosyncratic, but that’s just a matter of personal taste – I like single origins because they’re always a little different. The peculiar bit was the tag in front of the espresso machine making the Laguna, which identified one of the coffee’s notes as “kale.” I like kale, but I don’t think that’s a flavor I want in my coffee, nor did I get that from the beans at all.

I went to College Station and Bryan the next day and only had one meal while out there, at Fargo’s Pit BBQ, another recommendation from Daniel Vaughn. I recommend the smoked chicken, which changed my sense of what smoked chicken could even taste like, taking on a flavor profile more like game meats and less like boring old chicken (that’s from the dark meat). The brisket was moist and tender but had little flavor from the rub or smoke, while the baked beans were solid, sweet but not saccharine. It’s worth a stop if you’re in the area, but I wouldn’t drive to Bryan from Austin or Houston just to try it.

Dallas eats.

From a culinary perspective, this had to be my most successful winter meetings since Las Vegas in 2008, which isn’t exactly a fair fight since Vegas is something of a food mecca. But Dallas had quite a bit to offer even with my restriction that no meal take place more than 15 minutes’ drive from the Hilton Anatole.

I’ll start with the one place I hit twice, Zaguan Bakery on Oak Lawn Drive, just under a mile and a half from our hotel and on my way back to Love Field to fly home. Zaguan is a South American bakery, featuring pastries, sandwiches, and other dishes from all over that continent, including one of my favorite foods on the planet, the arepa – a thin cornmeal pancake, here sliced lengthwise and stuffed with the fillings of of your choice for a deliciously sloppy sandwich. The slow-cooked beef was whole (I believe brisket) rather than ground, producing a much better texture, and while it comes with a mildly spicy red sauce it’s elevated by fresh guacamole. As good as the arepa was, it was topped by the cachapa, a thick pancake of cornmeal with fresh corn kernels mixed in for a crunchier, sweeter wrap around the same choice of fillings (like an omelet); I had the cachapa with chicken, white meat cooked in a similar sauce but without the depth of flavor from the beef. Both sandwiches are served with plantain chips that you can upgrade to maduros for $0.99 (do this). There’s also a big display case full of sweet pastries that merits a return trip – I only tried one, the alfajor de chocolate, a linzer tarte-like cookie with chocolate frosting between two shortbread cookies with a chocolate glaze on top, not too sweet with a perfect crumbly texture.

My editor Chris Sprow and I went for high-end Mexican on the first night of the meetings at La Duni, a very well-reviewed restaurant over on McKinney. The fresh guacamole appetizer was big and more chunky than smooth (I prefer this style, although I think it’s a matter of taste), with diced onions, cucumbers, and serrano peppers. For the meal, I went with the slow-roasted lomo sandwich, primarily because the restaurant has its own bakery and I can’t turn down fresh bread – in this case, Pan de Yema, a sort of South American brioche that, unfortunately, came out very dry, saved only by the avocado and Manchego in the middle along with the roasted pork. It came with yucca fries dusted in paprika and spritzed with lemon juice, perfectly fried (good thing, as undercooked yucca can kill you); but we also grabbed a side of maduros which were just as perfectly cooked, almost candied while maintaining some firmness inside. Sprow ordered enchiladas con pollo and cleaned his plate so fast I thought he’d eat the napkin too. I don’t care that much about ambience or décor but we both noticed how cool the place looked. One weird thing: They have valet parking … and the valet just pulled the car into the space right next to the front door. I’m pretty sure I could have done that myself.

Il Cane Rosso was the site of the first of our misfit-writers outings – I can’t tell you how much fun these dinners were, even beyond the food – over on the east side of Dallas, serving pizzas cooked in their wood-fired oven at 900 degrees. The house salad was fresh but overdressed; the Caesar, on the other hand, was one of the best I’ve had outside of the garlicky heaven you’ll find at Strip-T’s in Watertown, Massachusetts, although Il Cane Rosso does use anchovies in their Caesar dressing (which isn’t traditional). The pizzas had a great crust (they use imported 00 flour) with the correct amount of char on the outside and high-quality meats among the toppings, although their fresh mozzarella melted more like the low-moisture find you’d get in a grocery store. Of the pizzas we ordered, the prosciutto e rucola, with prosciutto crudo, arugula, and mozzarella, was my favorite. I only tried one of the three desserts we ordered, the zeppole, smaller than the kind I’m used to getting on Long Island but with the right crisp exterior and soft, yeasty interior. They had a solid selection of local beers, and the server (who also gets points for being an Arcade Fire fan) was knowledgeable about the beers and the pizzas. We ordered a substantial amount of food and everyone had at least one drink; with tip, the total ran just $35 a person.

The second group dinner was to Lockhart Smokehouse, in the Bishop Arts District. Lockhart brags “no forks needed,” although I’d call that a slight exaggeration; the brisket was insanely tender with the best outer bark I have ever had on any kind of smoked beef. The smoked sausage, from Kreuz Market in Lockhart (near San Antonio), was fair but didn’t have the same great smoke flavor as the brisket. They smoke food over local post oak, which is apparently common in Texas but isn’t a wood I’ve encountered anywhere else. My fellow writers gave positive reviews to the ribs, the jalapeno sausage, and the smoked chicken. I did try the baked beans but tasted all heat and very little smoke. Sprow’s contribution to the blog follows:

Beware of meat.

Back to solo dining: Tei-An is a Japanese soba house in the Arts District with a slightly peculiar menu mixing traditional Japanese dishes with plates more tailored to the American palate. I went with a soba dish, figuring I should go with something I couldn’t get just anywhere, short green soba noodles served hot with chicken in a mild curry-like sauce (too mild to really be curry, I think). The dish was solid, very filling thanks to the noodles but touching on bland, and the dish came with four mayo-heavy California rolls as a free side dish. The soba noodles were very well made, but just lacked flavor; maybe I ordered the wrong thing, but at a soba house, shouldn’t the soba dishes blow you away?

I ventured out for one breakfast, at Craft Dallas, another outpost in Tom Colicchio’s growing empire. The short rib hash with two eggs any style was a small disappointment, given Craft’s legendary 24-hour short rib dish; the short ribs themselves were fine, but the hash was sitting in a fancy bowl with a very salty sauce on the bottom, and the (perfectly) poached eggs ended up running into that sauce.

Texas eats.

I’ll start with the bad experience of the trip since it’s the most interesting – one of the worst and weirdest meals I’ve had on the road over the last five years.

Riva Mediterranean Grill in Arlington (not far from UTA) is a fairly new restaurant in the space formerly occupied by an Italian restaurant in a strip mall on Park Row. I found a few positive reviews and comments about Riva, promising good eastern Mediterranean food, but the food was awful across the board – nothing is fresh and I have reason to believe they’re not handling their food properly. The hummus appetizer had only a harsh lemon flavor and a bland texture, both of which I’d associate with prefab hummus from the supermarket, but when I asked my server if it was made in-house I was told “yes” – possibly true, but doubtful. The chicken shish kebab eliminated any questions I had about the restaurant, however, as the meat had the unmistakeable look and texture of chicken that wasn’t thawed fully before its exposure to heat. Of the nine or ten pieces on the two skewers, I cut into seven and found the same problem in each one. I know that texture because I’ve encountered it before – and because I’ve made that same mistake myself, about ten or eleven years ago when I was first learning to cook. (The rice that came with it was straight from a box, too.)

When the head server (possibly a manager – he never identified himself by his role) came to ask if I wanted a box for the chicken, I told him I didn’t need one because the chicken was inedible. His response was to ask if I’d ever had “shish” before – I half-expected him to follow up by asking if I’d ever had chicken before – and to claim that the meat was never frozen and that this was the first complaint they’d ever had. I’m no Gordon Ramsay but I know badly handled meat when I taste it, and the fact that front of house doesn’t know what’s going on in the back (or lied about it) just made it worse. I may have left skid marks in the parking lot.

I needed a quick meal before the Friday night game at TCU and an Urbanspoon query on nearby Q joints sent me to Red Hot & Blue, which was a 35, terrible chain barbecue masked under kitschy Memphis-blues décor.

As for the one decent meal of the trip, I did try Ethiopian food for the first time, going to A Taste of Ethiopia in Pflugerville just north of Austin. (Google Maps has their location wrong, if you try to go – they’re a mile or so further south on Grand, on the west side of the road.) I knew very little about Ethiopian food before the meal, nothing beyond their berbere spice mix and injera flat bread (made with teff, an ancient grain now making a comeback with the current whole-grains craze), so I can’t judge whether this was good or authentic for the cuisine. The service at Taste of Ethiopia was off the charts, especially once I said I was new to the cuisine, and the server strongly encouraged me to try the lamb tibbs, marinated and slow cooked with berbere, onions, and peppers. I lost my taste for lamb about two years ago, with no explanation; I just can’t stomach the smell of it, so I went with siga tibbs, the same item made with beef.

The dish, like a thin stew, wasn’t spicy but had a bright chili flavor like you’d get from ancho chili powder, but the beef was surprisingly tough for something marinated and slow-cooked. The meal is served without utensils, as you are supposed to tear off some injera and grab some of the meat and vegetables which are spread out on a large plate lined with a single piece of injera – a little awkward, but eventually effective enough, and nobody seemed to care if I made a mess of things. They’ll serve their dishes with rice instead of injera and will bring utensils on request, but I didn’t think it made sense to act like a tourist when trying a new cuisine.

The bread itself was like a mild, spongy crepe, but I was surprised to see zero evidence of browning anywhere on it – that may be traditional but I’m hard-pressed to think of another bread product (other than steamed breads) that is deliberately removed from the pan or oven before it browns, and whole grains benefit from the way browning brings out nutty flavors. It was clearly just made, and one of the servers was on the prowl with fresh injera in case anyone was running low. The meal also came with a spicy cooked green bean and carrot dish and a tart cooked cabbage and potato mixture (not your mum’s bubble and squeak). It’s a ton of food and including their house-brewed spiced iced tea, which includes cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves, ran about $15 before tip.

Incidentally, thanks to all of you who suggested Ethiopian dishes I might try, as well as those of you who pushed Austin-area recs. I was only in the metro area for about six hours and never south of Pflugerville, so I’ll store those away for another visit.

Atlanta & Dallas eats.

The updated draft top 100 went up on Friday, and I just went into the Conversation to answer your questions.

I was only on the ground in Atlanta for about 24 hours last week but did end up eating at three new places.

Big Daddy’s is a well-reviewed and inexpensive soul food place just south of the airport where you order at the counter from steam trays, much like the meat-and-three places I found in Nashville a few years ago. The one surprise to me was the lack of fried dishes – they offer fried fish to order but no fried chicken, which I think of as a staple of Southern cuisine. I’m assuming that they don’t offer it because fried chicken that has been sitting is just not good eats. The service was extremely friendly, but the food – roasted chicken, cornbread stuffing that was way too salty, steamed okra that was just slimy, and collard greens – was unremarkable. Grade 45.

I met a friend of mine from high school for dinner at Milton’s in the town of that name in Fulton County, where we ended up ordering the same thing, the panko-crusted trout with black sesame seeds, which the server told us was their most popular dish. The fish was excellent, very fresh, pan-fried but not greasy, and the sweet red chili sauce underneath was a good complement to the slightly salty taste of the breading. The dish was overloaded with sides, including shrimp-sweet potato fritters that looked amazing but were kind of gummy, and some ho-hum mashed potatoes. I’d give them a 50 for the fish but they may be trying too hard with the extras.

The best meal of the trip came on a tip from Friend of the Dish Richard Dansky, whose novel Firefly Rain earned my recommendation last month. The Buckhead Bread Company is part bakery, part upscale brunch spot. I’m not normally a French toast guy, but I figured that was a smart order in restaurant attached to a bakery. The chef uses rounds cut from brioche and must finish them under a broiler to add a sweet, crunchy crumb topping, and the dish comes with a blueberry sauce and fresh blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries. I also had the sausage patties, which were on the savory side for breakfast and were overcooked, but the saltiness was a good offset to the sweetness of the French toast, which could easily have been on the dessert menu for a fine restaurant. (Pain perdu, the French version of French toast, is served as dessert in France, not as breakfast.) The menu wasn’t extensive but they had several other offerings I wanted to try, so between that and the high quality of what I got, it’s a 55.

My 24 hours in Dallas were less productive from an eating perspective, as I only ate one meal outside a hotel or ballpark. Spring Creek BBQ is a local chain of Q joints, and there’s one not far from UTA’s park that was reasonably convenient for me to hit before hopping my flight out of DFW. Their sliced beef (brisket) was mixed – the ends were flavorful on their own and just needed a little sauce to cut their dryness, while the center slices were almost too moist and had the texture of corned beef (one of the few foods that I absolutely despise). The mild smoked sausage was plus, a salty-sweet-smoky link of porcine goodness. The sides are serve-yourself, which makes me think about how utterly disgusting most people are, but the meal comes with unlimited hot rolls, a little like a large Parker house roll but white rather than slightly yellow inside, which I assume means it’s made with milk but doesn’t contain much butter. It’s a high 50 for me.

Houston eats, 2010 edition.

I had three meals out in Houston, one plus, one solid-average, and one fringy. The plus meal was a reader recommendation on Twitter when I put out a call for Q joints. Pierson & Company, a two-year-old restaurant up on TC Jester north of downtown, made a stir when they finished first in a local competition for best brisket and second to Luling City Market* for ribs. When I asked the woman behind the counter what she recommended, she asked if it was my first time at the place, and a few moments later I had a sampler plate in front of me with a small chunk of brisket, a shred of pulled pork, and a hunk of house-made beef sausage – probably close to a quarter pound of meat, gratis. All three were outstanding, with the sausage really standing out for its mix of flavors (beef, smoke, and hot pepper), but I went with the brisket since that’s Pierson’s main claim to fame. I could eat the bark of Pierson’s brisket all day long; the sliced brisket sandwich came with easily a half pound of meat, more than the roll could hold, with a deep pink smoke ring and the perfect mix of smoky flavor and internal moisture. (They’re known for closing early if they run out of meat – the mark of any great barbecue shack, because it says that they’re smoking meat daily and won’t serve anything that’s been stored and reheated.) Their cole slaw was freshly made but a little oversauced, although anyone familiar with the use of a fork could get around the issue, since the vegetables were still extremely crisp. Skip the peach cobbler, though, as it tasted of the can. All that including a bottle of water ran about $10.

*I have read many times over that Luling City Market in Houston is but a pale imitation of Luling Bar-B-Q in the city of Luling, west of Houston. If any of you can vouch for this or contradict it, I’d love to hear about it.

The solid-average meal was a recommendation from a scout who’s worked Texas for a few years: Dolce Vita, a pizzeria/bar on Montrose in what I think is Houston’s trendy-restaurant district. Dolce Vita does a respectable Italian-style pizza, with a thin crust and a mix of traditional and non-traditional pizzas. (I don’t believe you can do toppings a la carte, although I didn’t ask since they offered something I liked.) The prosciutto and arugula pizza was generously topped with both items and properly sauced underneath, which is to say there wasn’t much tomato sauce at all – deconstructed, it was a sparsely-topped margherita pizza with a significant helping of arugula and several slices of prosciutto added after the underlying pizza was cooked. The roughly twelve-inch pizza ran about $13 and I inhaled it despite ripping through more than half of an appetizer, the grilled broccoli with pecorino romano, which despite coming cold (a shock to me, since it didn’t say anything about it on the menu and “verdure” more often refers to hot vegetable dishes) was one of the best broccoli dishes I’ve ever had. The broccoli was grilled and then chopped or shredded and tossed with salt, lots of fresh black pepper, and thick short ribbons of pecorino romano, so in every bite you’re getting salty, bitter, sweet (from the caramelized parts of the broccoli), and umami (from the cheese). Total bill without a drink was $25 including tip.

The fringe-average meal was around the corner from Dolce Vita, a place called Little Big’s. One of a handful of restaurants from Bryan Caswell, a Houston native who’s both a chef (his higher-end restaurants are Reef and Stella Sola) and a sports fan, Little Big’s combines two recent food trends, sliders and gourmet burgers, with middling results. You can order their three-inch-diameter sliders individually, but the standard order is three sliders in any combination of four types – beef with caramelized onions, southern-fried chicken, pulled pork (smoked for twelve hours), or black bean. In the interests of serving you, the reader, I ordered one of each of the first three types. The beef burger was dominated by the flavor of the caramelized onions, which were brilliantly sweet with just a hint of their natural acidity, but the beef itself ended up in the background – and, worse, it wasn’t hot, just warm when I got it. The pulled pork was similarly lukewarm, although I can at least understand why Q might not be served piping hot (it’ll dry out if you smoke it and then hold it too long), but the smoke flavor was strong and it was only slightly sauced so the smoke could come through. The chicken was boring and the crust, while very crispy, had no intention of staying anywhere near the meat and half of it slid off the first time I picked the slider up. Their hand-cut fries are on a par with Five Guys’ (that’s good) and maybe 2/3 the cost, although sitting in a basket they started to steam themselves and became a little soggy. The chocolate milkshake was thick and creamy and redolent of chocolate syrup stirred into vanilla ice cream. I do really like what Caswell’s trying to do here, and with better execution – quality control on the burgers, serving the fries in a paper bag or just a wider basket, using actual chocolate ice cream instead of syrup – it could be plus, but this time out it fell short.

Unrelated to food but worth a mention: I was very impressed by Rice’s baseball field, Reckling Park. I’ve been to minor league stadiums that weren’t that nice and I can see why the NCAA might love to have regionals there when the Owls earn it through their play. I know college baseball is still a poor cousin to its big-revenue brethren on campus, but Rice should be able to convert their history of good clubs and a beautiful stadium into fan support from outside the campus. After all, would you rather go see Anthony Rendon … or Brandon Lyon?