The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

and another!

two in a week. We found Mexico City, a Mexican loncheria Downtown--on Smithfield, near the bridge. And it was GREAT. And crowded! what a great sign, both of the quality of the food and of the palates of Downtown workers. Parking downtown is always a drag, but it's worth it for this place. I hope they can stay in business, because I can't imagine that they do much on the weekends. We'll be there, though.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

the free market

Although the rampant corruption of the Republicans in Congress and the Bush Administration (see DeLay, Cunningham, Ney, Halliburton, and so on) is chipping away at the once-unquestionable belief that "private business can always do better than government" and "the free market is the wisest and fairest mechanism in existence," those beliefs are still quite strong in the general population--and, it goes without saying, even stronger in government these days. That's why it was so refreshing to read Mohammed Yunus' Nobel Prize speech that he gave the other day. He won the Prize for his "banker-to-the-poor" efforts (briefly: loaning small amounts of money to the world's destitute can help them improve their lives, and can also be a viable business proposition), but in his speech he does a fantastic job making a more nuanced argument about capitalism. He says:

"Capitalism centers on the free market. It is claimed that the freer the market, the better is the result of capitalism in solving the questions of what, how, and for whom. It is also claimed that the individual search for personal gains brings collective optimal result.

I am in favor of strengthening the freedom of the market. At the same time, I am very unhappy about the conceptual restrictions imposed on the players in the market. This originates from the assumption that entrepreneurs are one-dimensional human beings, who are dedicated to one mission in their business lives--to maximize profit. This interpretation of capitalism insulates the entrepreneurs from all political, emotional, social, spiritual, environmental dimensions of their lives. This was done perhaps as a reasonable simplification, but it stripped away the very essentials of human life."

Wow. I"m not sure I've ever heard this so precisely and sensibly stated. He goes on:

"Many of the world's problems exist because of this restriction on the players of free-market. The world has not resolved the problem of crushing poverty that half of its population suffers. Healthcare remains out of the reach of the majority of the world population. The country with the richest and freest market fails to provide healthcare for one-fifth of its population.

We have remained so impressed by the success of the free-market that we never dared to express any doubt about our basic assumption. To make it worse, we worked extra hard to transform ourselves, as closely as possible, into the one-dimensional human beings as conceptualized in the theory, to allow smooth functioning of free market mechanism.

By defining "entrepreneur" in a broader way we can change the character of capitalism radically, and solve many of the unresolved social and economic problems within the scope of the free market. Let us suppose an entrepreneur, instead of having a single source of motivation (such as, maximizing profit), now has two sources of motivation, which are mutually exclusive, but equally compelling 3/4 a) maximization of profit and b) doing good to people and the world."


We finally found a Mexican place worth going to: Azul Bar y Cantina. The problem: it's in Leetsdale.

Azul would not be remarkable on the West Coast or in the Southwest--it'd probably go out of business, frankly--but it is by far the best Mexican food in this area. The owners came here long ago from San Diego, and just last year opened their place in Leetsdale (which, we learned, is out past Sewickley, and twenty-five miles from the East End of Pittsburgh, where we live). The building is pleasant, the margaritas just fine, the food more than respectable, and the service--the service!!--great.

As my wife can attest, I've NEVER been the kind of person who cares about service in restaurants or stores, but since coming here I've had my fill of the particularly Pittsburgh combination of 1) sullen and 2) incompetent. I lived in NYC and generally wasn't bothered by gruffness. I used to patronize Rocket Video on La Brea in L.A. when we lived there, and the obnoxious superciliousness of the film-school dropouts who worked there didn't get to me, BECAUSE THEY COULD FULFILL THE MINIMUM EXPECTATIONS OF THEIR JOB. Here? You can never count on anything.

Anyway, I recommend Azul for any former Westerners or Southwesterners who crave fajitas or enchiladas or the like. It's hard to say that it's worth the drive, because at least from the east side it really is quite a drive, but I'd give it a push.

Monday, December 11, 2006

the death of pinochet

Dead at 91, Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet is finally receiving the treatment so sorely due him:

Being referred to as a "tragic figure" and a "liberator" by the Bush Administration's Otto Reich.

(note Reich's skillful use of the passive voice: "Allende supporters and innocents alike were summarily executed, imprisoned and tortured." By?)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

two squirrel hill restaurant disappointments

This weekend brought two more disappointing restaurant experiences. The first was at The Silk Elephant, a "Thai tapas" place at Forbes and Murray run by the people who own Bangkok Balcony up the street. Having come from the west coast, we've never found Bangkok Balcony to be all that great (we prefer the Green Mango in Edgewood and its new Regent Square storefront), but I've always thought it more than adequate (and the yellow curry is actually quite excellent). We went Saturday evening at about six and sat in the bar, intending, as we were headed to an office Christmas party, just to order "tapas" after the good experience we'd had two weeks ago at Ibiza, The place was crowded, but the bartended took our order pretty quickly. The problems were two: first of all, the food took FOREVER to come, largely because, I'm convinced, the bartender just forgot to submit our order to the kitchen. (Other wait staff were telling other diners that the kitchen was backed up, but ours took exceptionally long--almost an hour.) When the food arrived it was both cold and, frankly, not all that great. I might be willing to chalk up the experience to a kitchen staff who just got slammed one night for whaever reason--a sick day by a line cook, maybe--but the food wasn't great, either. Disappointing.

Fortunately, when we went to Cuzamil, a new Mexican place on lower Murray in Squirrel Hill, we had no high hopes, having realized long ago that it's impossible to find good Mexican food in Pittsburgh. This isn't to knock the people who run those places, who have all been quite pleasant, but every place we've been--Cozumel in Shadyside, El Campesino in Monroeville, Taco Loco on Carson, Mad Mex, Fajita Grill in Shadyside--has been pretty poor, and Cuzamil was no exception. Overpriced, old-fashioned (and I don't mean this in a good way) Mexican. It might have been acceptable in the 1980s to cook Mexican food largely with canned ingredients, but after the fresh-food revolution you just can't do it anymore: you have got to have fresh cilantro, tomatillos, peppers of varying kinds, etc. And that's just a baseline of adequacy. Sadly, this news has yet to hit here. It's aggravating.

I realized that I subconsciously judge Pittsburgh Mexican restaurants on what I call the "El Coyote scale": is this place better than the famous, famously bad El Coyote restaurant on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles? El Coyote survives, in a city full of genuinely good Mexican eateries, because of its strong margaritas, its defiant insistence on providing a large smoking section, and its kitsch factor. Its refusal to move with the times is its charm. Unfortunately, most of Pittsburgh's Mexican places fail the El Coyote test: and I wouldn't go there, either.

It's infuriating because these places are (with the exception of Mad Mex, as far as I know) all run by Mexicans, and THEY KNOW that they're not serving up the good stuff. I'm not demanding completely authentic fare; I'm not looking for Fonda San Miguel or anything. But I think that the food is so poor because that's what people want here. Or maybe I'm just blaming the victims.