28 February 2007

The Lowdown on H-Town

This is part one of a series. Part two can be found here.

It occurred to me that my own end of the month deadline for the Carnival of Dining Out is rapidly approaching, and I hadn't written a single thing this month worthy of a spot at my own dance. One of the reasons that my posts were a little light there for awhile was because I took a long weekend to attend the annual gathering of the West Tennessee Glee Club and BBQ Appreciation Society, held Presidents' Day weekend (this year) in central Texas.

I flew into Houston and met up with a buddy of mine for our first meal at my favorite barbecue joint in H-town, Williams Smokehouse. Williams is pretty well known, especially in BBQ circles, but most others consider the more well-known barbecue houses in town (Goode & Co. and Otto's come to mind) to be the best. Heck, President Bush eats his barbecue at Otto's when he's in town, so it must be good, right? I found this list on Citysearch from 2005 that doesn't even list Williams Smokehouse in the Top 10 BBQ restaurants in all of Houston (this is the voice of the people - should be able to rely on that, no?).

I will only say this about that - if you don't think that Williams has the best BBQ in Houston, it is probably because you have never been there. Folks that have been, will generally agree with my assessment. I have spoken to many friends and acquaintances who live in and around Houston, and many of them have never been to Williams. Why? Well, for one thing, it is in a horrible part of town. Most every time I have been there, I have been the only white person in the whole place. It is also in a pretty inconvenient part of town - it is not near the Galleria, for instance, so tourists aren't going to seek it out, and employees aren't going to pack the place around lunch time.

Most Texas BBQ is about the beef. Williams makes a fine brisket, and their sauce has just enough bite to let you know that you are IN Texas. But, the star of the show at this place is the ribs. These are not tender baby backs - rather, these long spare ribs have good amount of meat that needs a good tug to come off the bone. Williams gets it - the meat on ribs shouldn't be "falling off the bone" as many people describe. Ribs that are made as such, are probably overcooked. Not only are the ribs excellent, but at $8.50 for the pictured plate, they are a true bargain. If I didn't have my heart set on the ribs, I would have jumped on the daily special - a sliced beef sandwich, small fries and a drink for $4.95.

Williams is on the northwest side of town, and it is usually my first stop whenever I fly into IAH, as it is somewhat convenient to the airport.

After leaving Williams, we decided to drive down to Galveston for the afternoon. Information on that part of the trip will be below the fold.

Galveston is just 45 quick minutes south of Houston, but for all the times I have been to H-town, I have never made the drive down to the beach. I was surprised at what we found. The city of Galveston is much nicer than what I had envisioned. The water was nice - not completely clear, but not nasty. I understand that there are some issues with seaweed infestation during different times of the year, but this was not evident during our trip. It was a chilly day, so spending time at the beach was not something to spend a lot of time on.

We made way towards the downtown "Strand" district and found LaKing's - a place for homemade confections - candy and ice cream, coffee, etc. I am a sucker for homemade ice cream (I am a sucker for homemade chocolates and fudge, too - just ask the girl who sold me all this stuff!), and LaKing's didn't disappoint. They make small batches of some relatively unique flavors. Some of the flavors that they offered were apple and pumpkin pie, strawberry cheesecake, Banana Walnut, and Amaretto Almond. The young gentleman at the counter encouraged me to try most every flavor they had under glass. I went with the apple pie, and it did not disappoint. Unfortunately, the picture didn't come out too well. The picture of the largest jawbreakers I have ever seen, however, photographed quite well. This will be part of a series of photos that I will call "Everything Really Is Bigger in Texas!"

By the time we were done at LaKing's, it was about time to head back up to Houston. We had dinner plans on tap. I will cover dinner and breakfast the following day in the next post.

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27 February 2007

What Kind Of Day Has It Been?

I thought that my Monday nights were perfect. Monday was the only night that I actually scheduled three hours of prime time viewing.

8 pm: Countdown with Keith Olbermann - I don't consider it a news source, but I do think that it is one of the funniest shows on television. Regular segments like 'Oddball' and 'Worst Person in the World' make me laugh, and Olbermann's sharp wit and biting commentary make me long for the years he paired with Dan Patrick on the "Big Show" edition of 'SportsCenter.' If you haven't seen the show - and your political leanings would allow it - you should check out 'Countdown.' Be there...aloha.

9 pm: 24 - I would watch James Bond movies if they were on every night (and I do when they run those holiday marathons on Spike). '24' is my way of getting a Bond fix once a week. Sure, the show is flawed - we all know that you can't get from Point A to Point B in LA in under 8 minutes - get over it. Once you can suspend reality for an hour, the show is usually non-stop excitement. I haven't been thrilled with this season yet, but I am willing to give Sutherland, Surnow and gang a chance to let this one run a little, but we are on shaky ground. Wayne Palmer as the PRESIDENT? Come on. Nobody dug up his extra-marital affair from a couple of years ago during that campaign? Morris is seemingly unfazed by some guy drilling a hole in his shoulder, but Chloe bitch-slapping him gets him back to work? Still, the pluses outweigh the minuses weekly and (now) it is the one show every week that I will arrange my schedule around watching.

10 pm: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - If you are an Aaaron Sorkin fan, you probably recognized the post title as the namesake for the final episode of Season 1 of both 'The West Wing' and the "Brilliant But Canceled" 'Sports Night.' Unfortunately, a disturbing parallel exists between 'Sports Night' and 'Studio 60' - their respective networks never really gave the shows a chance to succeed, and, in one of the most depressing things to happen this year, NBC placed the show on hiatus - a network term that is usually the equivalent of death row. Sure, the governor may call at the last minute to stave off execution, but it just isn't going to happen.

There is some excellent analysis as to why 'Studio 60' failed on this thread found on the nbc.com chat boards.

The cast was a bad fit. Aside from Matthew Perry (who was a wonderful surprise) and Timothy Busfield (who was underused), not much else worked. Sarah Paulson and D.L. Hughley were not funny in this series playing comics. Nate Corddry is funny in real life and was funny on the show, but his part, like Busfield's, was too small. Had Amanda Peet, as the fictional network president, flipped roles with Paulson, it would have been a major improvement. Bradley Whitford is a wonderful actor but he at first seemed to be rejiggering his "West Wing" role, then his character became periodically unlikable or annoying. Either way, it's not the mix you want.

Steven Weber went from bellicose chairman of the network (which didn't work) to beleaguered chairman of the network (which did, and he became funny while everyone around him went dour by apparent accident.)
The biggest surprise for me was that Matthew Perry escaped being forever typecast as Chandler Bing - a near certainty in my mind, while Bradley Whitford could not set aside his role as Josh Lyman. I have already seen him play Josh - and I liked Josh - my favorite character on 'The West Wing.' Still, it's already been done.

The story arc between DL Hughley and "the new black guy" got tired quickly. We get it - DL Hughley doesn't want TNBG to be an "Uncle Tom" - so, instead he treated him like his own personal bitch for a few episodes. Beating this dead horse was incredibly unneccessary.

Lastly, like the article states, the show just never got better. I kept waiting for it - heck, I kept ROOTING for it. My personal take is that Sorkin and his team got worried when the show started bleeding viewers and tried to tweak the show on the fly. They tried to fit their square peg into NBC's round hole. It doesn't work - it never works.

The reality is that 'Studio 60' is a work in progress that will likely never be completed. It may have been more suited to a cable outlet, like HBO, which can give shows time to develop an audience. Network television is just too competetive to allow a show as expensive as S60 is to produce to falter - at all. The star power that the show packs is probably also responsible for the downfall. For those that lament the lack of quality written television, shame on you for not tuning in early when viewership would have made a difference. Instead, you are left to roll around in the gutter with 'Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?'

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26 February 2007

Financial Aid Independence

A Long Overdue Response...sorry...I was out of town for a few days and then the real world kicked in. We have been absolutely slammed at work with folks visiting from out of town. Trust me - it is not a complaint, but when I get home, the last thing I want to do is sit down and write some more.

Still, I promised a commenter on an old thread a response, and I hate to have it buried in the recesses of a year-old post. The commenter wanted to know about "principle residence" and how a second home might qualify the family for additional aid benefits.

If we own second home (recreation) about 45 minutes from primary, is there a way in Junior year our son can claim living on his own at the second home address (maybe paying us rent)so that he can obtain more benefits on financial aid? In essence they would NOT look at parents assets??
There are a number of factors at play here, and the first thing that I would suggest is to contact the financial aid office at the schools that you are considering to see if they have any advice. The reason for this is that while there are some universal guidelines, every school has the opportunity to administer financial aid under the auspice of "professional judgement," which allows for some leeway in some unusual circumstances. My answers below should be considered "common practice," what you might expect at MOST schools.

1. Living at a separate address (especially a house owned by a student's parents) does not mean that you are independent for the sake of financial aid. Generally, there are four (common) circumstances in which a student is considered to be independent for the purposes of financial aid.
(a) The student reaches the age of 24 during the year in which aid is awarded;
(b) The student is married;
(c) The student is a single parent, with custody of child(ren);
(d) Both of the students parents are deceased.
(a) and (d) are not really things that one can control (members of the Menendez family are obviously excluded), but just circumstance. I would not recommend engaging in (b) and/or (c) EXCLUSIVELY for the purpose of gaining additional financial aid. Why do colleges enforce this rule? Students who are not dependent on their parents for funding their education are dependent on the university for funding their education. It is in the school's best interest to ensure that students and families are linked for as long as possible.

2. Some schools have residency requirements that require students to live on campus for a certain number of years. Other schools link their academic scholarship offers to living on campus. Be sure that you are aware of all the rules regarding housing and residency before considering this as a plan to reduce costs on housing.

3. The second home may be killing your chances at financial aid now. While equity in your primary residence is considered an excluded asset, the same is not the case for a second (vacation) home. While you can use a mortgage to offset the value of the second home, it is still considered an asset, and the net value will be included in the FAFSA calculation. If you own the home outright, this could be substantial. Also, some private colleges may view ownership in a second home as a luxury and may be less willing to provide additional need-based institutional aid.

I hope this helps. Further, I hope that my delay in responding was not too inconvenient for you.

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13 February 2007

Too Late to Apply to College? Not Hardly!

The application deadline has passed at schools like Duke, Cornell and George Washington, but is all hope lost if you haven't even begun to start the college application process? No way. US News and World Report, the folks who write the Bible on college rankings, have compiled a list of schools with late application deadlines and rolling admission.

How did this topic enter my mind? One of my colleagues (another person who works in the ADMISSION office) has a daughter who has not yet applied to any college. This is a smart kid, who, it has always been assumed, will attend the college where her father is on staff (serious tuition remission benefit). The girl is smart - but may be looking for a different collegiate environment, may not want to live (even on campus) so close to home, etc. For whatever reason, she has dragged her feet in getting applications out to colleges - ours or others.

I was amazed at the sheer number of schools that still accept applications - even schools with a posted deadline. There are a handful of schools with application deadlines AFTER we begin Orientation and fall classes. I suppose that is their subtle way of really utilizing rolling admission while appearing so selective as to have a deadline? With such a daunting list, where does one begin? Well, by now, hopefully, you have some idea of the characteristics you want in a college. There are colleges on this list that could still meet almost any student's academic, geographic, social, and faith-based goals. Even the military academies application deadlines haven't all passed yet!

Looking for the larger state university experience? Quality state universities, such as the University of Kansas, University of Houston, Arizona State University, Colorado State University, and the University of Memphis are just a handful of the quality public schools with application deadlines on or AFTER April 1.

There are top-notch private liberal arts colleges, as well. College of Santa Fe, Manhattan College, Marietta College, Lake Forest College, Albertson, and Mercer University all have deadlines on or after April 1.

Perhaps you are considering a specialized school, say, in art, theater, food, or fashion. The Culinary Institute of America (the Harvard of cooking schools!), Fashion Institute of Technology (the Harvard of the fashion world!), Savannah College of Art and Design (the Harvard of....OK, you get the picture!), Johnson and Wales University, and Columbia College (Art, in Chicago) all have deadlines after April 1.

I am a huge sports fan - and I almost made my college choice based on my ability to watch big time college athletics. This year, of the ten schools that made the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), you can still apply to three of them - Louisville, LSU, and Boise State University. You can still apply to nearly half of the current Top 25 Division I men's basketball schools - Pittsburgh, Kansas, Memphis, Nevada, Washington State, Butler, Marquette, Southern Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and Arizona. From the six major D-I athletic conferences, applications are still being accepted at nine Big East Schools (WVU, USF, DePaul, Marquette, Rutgers, Seton Hall, St. John's, Pittsburgh, and Louisville); eight Big 12 schools (Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State, Kansas, and Missouri); seven SEC schools (Ole Miss, Auburn, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Alabama, Tennessee, and LSU); six Big 10 schools - which many consider to be the most academically rigorous of the major college conferences (Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, Indiana, and Purdue); three Pac-10 schools (Arizona, Arizona State, and Washington State); and two ACC schools (Clemson and Florida State).

Of course, you may not have to give up that Ivy dream yet - even if you haven't started the application process. The University of Toronto, sometimes described as the "Harvard of Canada" will accept applications through March 1. Southern Methodist University (SMU), one of many schools that has earned the moniker "Harvard of the South" is still accepting applications, as are Beloit College, the "Harvard of the Midwest;" Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, the "Harvard of the Sky;"Gallaudet University, the "Harvard of the Deaf Community;" and Hiram College, the "Harvard of Northeastern Ohio." Maybe you are not a Harvard Man (or Woman). You can still apply to Samford University, the "Princeton of the South;" or Truman State University, the "Princeton of the Prairie."

In all seriousness, there are a number of excellent colleges out there that are still accepting applications - and many of them will continue to do so right up until the time classes start in August. That said, if you want a solid chance at one of these schools, it could be time to get a move on, as they say. Getting in is one thing - financial aid is something else, and that money will start disappearing quickly.

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10 February 2007

Deal of the Day - Free Ice Cream

OK...it's been a REALLY long time since I posted a "Deal of the Day," but this is a pretty good one - and just in time for Valentine's Day! Cold Stone Creamery is giving away free ice cream (really it is buy one-get one, but you're not going by yourself, are you?). I do see the humor in offering free ice cream when most of the country is either digging out from serious snow or cranking up the heater in hopes of bringing their house temp UP to about 58 degrees.

Personally, I think Cold Stone is allright in a pinch, but I am off to central Texas next week, where I will be enjoying a stop at my favorite ice cream joint, Amy's! No one can live on BBQ brisket, alone. These are a few pictures of my previous visit....

This Amy's location is situated in a former roadside motel - hence the "VACANCY/NO VACANCY" signage that is used to express when the store is open for business. Even on a chilly, rainy night, Amy's is a great stop!

The flavors at Amy's are just a little on the unique side. I am told that the Guiness selection is sometimes switched out for Shiner! Pumpkin is likely to be a flavor that was available last time, but not next week.

Amy's hires truly outgoing people who love what they do. Sure, you get the wannabe actors at Cold Stone singing on cue, but these folks are true ice cream lovers that will let you sample everything on the menu (remember, the theme was "free ice cream!") and offer up suggestions as to what ice cream pairs best with which mix-ins. "Lucky Charms" here suggested coffee ice cream with Heath Bar mixed in. It was perfect!

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03 February 2007

Southwest Airlines Lets Students Double Up

Southwest Airlines announced a new College Rapid Rewards Program aimed at the nation's legions of collegiate travelers. They are offering four credits for a new sign-up, and double flight credits for each flight booked at their web site. Southwest flights usually earn one flight credit in each direction (two credits for one round-trip ticket) and require 16 credits earned within two years to yield one round-trip award ticket. Hence, the standard Rapid Rewards program usually requires 8 round-trip flights to earn one "free" ticket. With the college program, a student can earn their first award ticket after just three round-trip flights; and subsequent award tickets after four round-trip purchases.

I am a huge Southwest fans, especially when I am traveling on my own nickel. I am meeting a few friends in Texas in a couple of weeks for a weekend outing. I was able to get a round-trip flight from Tampa to Houston for $141, including all taxes and fees, using their Ding feature. Unfortunately, I will only be earning the standard two Rapid Rewards credits for my flight!

I see this promotion as a deal for both Southwest and a lot of college students that live and go to school in cities served by Southwest. This airline is known for their low costs, so their fares should appeal to college student budgets. Southwest has the opportunity to secure some long-term loyal customers (who, by nature, are already a pretty loyal bunch), while they still don't care about things like assigned seats, first-class cabins, and international award destinations. On top of that, college students will have the technological savvy to bring their own in-flight entertainment (iPod, laptop with DVD, etc.) and the resourcefulness to pack their own lunch so they won't miss out on Southwest's lack of in-flight movies or bothered when the flight attendent drops by with only a bag of peanuts.

Hat tip to Free Frequent Flyer Miles.

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01 February 2007

Carnival of Dining Out - Inaugural Edition

Welcome to the inaugural edition of the Carnival of Dining Out. Many blog carnivals take the midway theme, but I suppose this may be more of a "County Fair of Dining Out" as there will likely be more references to cotton candy, corn dogs, and fried Twinkies than ferris wheels and bearded ladies. I hope to have a companion map put together soon of all the places that are included in the Carnival (and will add future submissions in subsequent months). I am working on getting it together and it should be done soon. In the meantime, as they say, on with the show...

I literally had submissions from all over the world. Sometimes I forget that the Internets stretch out far past my own backyard. The first ever submission to the first ever Carnival of Dining Out, as a matter of fact, came from neighbor to the north, Mark Levison, who presents Cafe Chez Victor posted at Notes from a Tool User. Next time you are up in Quebec, check them out!

Keeping the international flavor going, a late submission wins the "distance from home base" award. Gillian Polack, from Melbourne, Australia sent us an update on the Melbourne Chinese Food scene posted at Food History. Gillian's current pick is "Tea and Rice." I am a big believer in eating local and regional cuisine. Based on this post, should I find myself in Melbourne, I would definitely consider hitting a few local Chinese restaurants.

I am smart enough to know that Alaska is not an international destination, but I can't think of a better way to transition back to the states than with this post from Michelle Mitchell: Favorite Places to Eat in Anchorage, Alaska posted at scribbit. Three posts - three places I would like to visit to check out the food scene!

We will make one more stop out west before heading back to the east coast (sorry - nothing this month in flyover country!). I have a friend who lived in Seattle for awhile, and one of the things he tells me is that he could never find a good slice of pizza in Seattle. Not so says Mary Jo! Savor the Taste of Authentic Neapolitan Pizza at Tutta Bella Pizzeria is posted at The Seattle Traveler. As a New Yorker (there is no such thing as a "former" New Yorker), folding Neopolitan pizza is the way to go. Maybe the next time my buddy "wanders" out to Seattle (ahem....baseball trip next year?), he will weigh on the merits Tutta Bella. Poor Seattlites have been without quality pizza for far too long.

The Hungover Gourmet tells us about his birthday jaunt to the famed White House Sub Shop in Atlantic City, NJ at The Hungover Gourmet. This guy knows a thing or two about cheesesteaks, Joan Jett, and chowing down with a good view of the water!

Heading down the eastern seaboard, Mary Jo tells us about some DC dining on Pentagon Row. Lebanese Taverna is the place, and it is posted at Flyaway Cafe. In the nation's capital, this is the place to get your shwarma on.

We also had some welcome posts from folks discussing the topic of dining out, rather than specific restaurants. We'll call this "Dining Out in the News" (you should be hearing my best Ted Baxter voice right now!).

Cub reporter, Praveen, tells us about an ongoing battle between Panera Bread and Qdoba Mexican Cafe. Fortunately, a Judge Says Burrito Is Not A Sandwich and immediately clears things up! Check out the rest of Praveen's blog at My Simple Trading System.

My favorite Boston Gal (who will always be Jane Dough to me!) reports on something that hits a little close to home for me: Eating Out is the Reason Americans Can't Save? Yikes. I know that I spend way too much on dining out, but I also save a goodly part of my pathetic income. Boston Gal's Open Wallet is one of my daily reads.

I am not a big wine guy, and one of those reasons may be that it just seems like the price of wine in restaurants is just too much for me. Will Chen presents Pop that corkage: Giant list of restaurants that allows you to BYO wine posted at Wisebread. Perhaps my wino buddies from ROGUEfood already know about these places, but if there is a way for me to save money on wine (see Boston Gal - I can tie almost anything to saving money!), I could definitely find myself imbibing a touch more often.

Lastly, I leave you with my own submission. I thought for awhile about which of my own posts I should choose and I finally settled on my first foodie post of 2007, which was really just a recap of The Best of 2006. I was fortunate enough to hit a few of this country's corners in my travels in 2006, and I think I compiled a pretty good "Best of..." Besides, this gives me 9 extra pins in the map (when it is completed!).

The Carnival of Dining Out II (Roman numberals are en vogue this week with the Super Bowl looming this Sunday) will be up on Thursday, March 1, 2007. Make sure that you submit your blog article to the next edition before 5 pm on Wednesday, February 28 using our handy dandy carnival submission form. Future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page. I hope to see you back here next month. Tell a few of your blogging friends and maybe we can get a few more submissions for the next edition. Thanks!

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