Beer Journal

A quasi-daily examination of beer and things related to beer.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reads: Last Call by Daniel Okrent

Daniel Okrent

I'm not expert in the field, but it seems to me that a good history book will accurately report on past events. A very good history book will accurately report while shining new light and by providing new insights. And a great history book will do those things, plus provide a lens for readers to use past events to interpret their modern worlds. Last Call, a singularly-focused tome by Daniel Okrent (Slate interview), former public editor of the New York Times and inventor of Rotisserie Baseball, falls into that last category.

In roughly 400 digestible pages, Okrent intricately detailed an era that school children across the nation can name, without focusing on the main points that most readers would already expect going in. Sure, Al Capone, Andrew Volstead and William Jennings Bryan get their due attention, but so do lesser-known noteworthy characters (in every sense of the term) Carry Nation, Al Smith, Billy Sunday and Sam Bronfman, none of whom are unjustly deified of damned. Places, such as the French-owned (and thus, prohibition-free) islands off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, are rightly treated as potential protagonists.

Perhaps just as important in this reviewer's estimation is the overall non-judgmental tone of Okrent's narrative, which does not fall into the predictable pratfalls of stereotyping the different people or events as simply "good" or "bad", but instead focuses on which were more effective and/or lasting.Okrent leaves it up to the reader to apply the lessons of prohibition to modern contexts. And there are many opportunities to do so. How you interpret these lessons is largely likely determined upon your present ideological slant.

For instance, modern day conservative talking heads like to remind everybody within earshot that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and that it was his party that freed the slaves. However, it is rarely mentioned that they are also the party the that installed big government Prohibition and, as a result, the federal income tax, two aspects of modern society that conservatives like to rail against. Furthermore, during the Prohibition era, Prohibitionist politicians aligned themselves with the KKK and had their campaigns supported by mobster and bootleggers, all groups that where able to make hay (and money) once alcohol was outlawed. Liberals might appreciate the way progressive politicians and privative citizens worked together to pass the 21st Amendment, but the good vibe can only last so long before remembering that modern day Democrats are too impotent to get Don't Ask Don't Tell repealed, let alone an entire Constitutional Amendment. What's more, the repeal itself took the flip-flopping of 17 senatorial votes, a prospect that should frighten any political party in the majority.

According to the sticker on the book cover, Ken Burns is working on turning Last Call into a PBS documentary chock-full of cameras panning over still photographs (it already has a Facebook page). That program is already listed as a must-see not just because of Burns's involvement, but because Daniel Okrent provided source material that is both thorough and vivid enough to provide surprises for history buffs that thought they already knew everything there was to know about the largest restriction of personal freedom in recent memory.

Orkent, Daniel. (2010). Last Call: The rise and fall of prohibition. New York, NY: Scribner.

Indie Bound

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Eats: De La Vega's Pecan Grill and Brewery

De La Vega's Pecan Grill and Brewery
500 S. Telshor (next to the Mesilla Valley Mall)
Las Cruces, New Mexico

When driving west during the spring and summer along Interstate 10 from El Paso to Las Cruces one cannot help but notice the army of pecan trees that surround the highway just outside the New Mexico city's limits. But outside of pie during autumn, I never find much use for that particular nut, so other than providing a burst of color to the otherwise dichromatic scenery, I hadn't given the trees much more than a passing glance.

That's partially why my family and I came across De La Vega's Pecan Grill and Brewery by accident. We were actually on our way the Las Cruces Farmers and Crafts Market when I spied a large silo decoration (a sure-fire sign of a brewpub) adjourning a restaurant close to our exit. After spending the morning at the Market (which, in spite of it's lack of beer-relatedness*, was quite fun), we decided on lunch at the brewery.

* Check out the print and screen work done by one of the market's artists, Tom McFarland, who will be starting his first semester at the Rhode Island School of Design in the fall of 2010.

As most readers have probably already recognized, most new brewpubs in this country follow a specific pattern: rust belt industrial d├ęcor complimented by American bistro pub fare and a predictable roster of beers (IPA, brown ale, blonde/pilsner, lager, and a porter and/or stout in their most homogenous forms). De La Vega's does not follow this pattern, and instead seems to be focused more on the individuality of its restaurant venture. For sure, brewpub staples such as burgers, sandwiches, fried appetizers and salads that are in no way healthy for you are all there, but additionally, the restaurant offers its own takes on catfish, pasta, shrimp as well as a few varieties of soup. The house cuts are of Sterling Silver beef, and the meat is cooked over a fire fueled by the titular wood, giving the food a subtle smoke flavor**. My wife had the catfish - the fillet could have been thicker, but the flavor and breading were both tasty. I enjoyed a hamburger stuffed with cheese, topped with a garlic aioli and served on a potato roll (I think it was called the "lava burger"). As long as you're expecting a gourmet burger, I would highly recommend this sandwich, but be warned: it's a two-handed, multi-napkin, possible-knife-and-fork-involved affair.

**I can't vouch for whether or not pecan is the smoking wood of choice for New Mexicans, but it certainly gets a lot of play in the Las Cruces region. My personal preference is for apple wood.

The front of the house is phenomenal, both in look and execution. High-rise ceilings reveal murals depicting local farms and scenery; the color scheme is cool and natural; a smartly-designed floor plan divides up space so that four-top tables receive the impression of privacy even when located in the center of the room. There is a beautiful patio area/waiting room with couches and fireplace, a fully-stocked bar and a large AV-ready room that I can only assume is available for private groups.

Similarly, the service at De La Vega's was excellent. Some families go hiking together, some spend time doing yard work: our family eats out. Even in our short time in the El Paso region, we've witnessed the entire quality of service gamut, and this was near the high water mark. Rather than spell out each specific instance, I'll surmise the experience with two points: No less than six different staff members offered us assistance during our meal; I'm a big fan of the collective approach to food service - few things bother me more when dining out (or working at a restaurant) than servers consciously ignoring tables that aren't technically "theirs". A second aspect that we loved was our daughter's meal. She's not a heavy eater, preferring to pick off of everyone else's plate, but we're always sure to order her something specifically that she'll enjoy, and this time we asked for broccoli. Now, as far as I could tell, nothing on the menu contained broccoli, but knowing that restaurants with rotating specials tend to keep a lot of ingredients off-menu, I gave it a go. Our server's*** professional and respectful response was exactly what this customer wanted to hear: "I'm not sure if we have any, but I'll ask the chef, and if we do, I'll bring some right out." Grace loved the steamed vegetable, which she chooses to eat like a lollipop.

*** Unfortunately, I cannot recall the particular server's name, but if any of the De La Vega's management is reading this, just extend thanks to the entire staff.

This is all good and well, I'm sure you're thinking, but what about the beer? De La Vega's has a good variety, most of which fall into the aforementioned expected styles. With my food, I tried the Las Cruces Lager (I usually go lager with a burger). It wasn't the ballpark refresher I was kind of hoping for on a 95-degree day, but what it did have was a sweet malt start and a legitimate hoppy finish. I also had a D's Pecan Beer, which provided the exact flavor the name would suggest, and even better, was one of those rare beers that my wife and I agreed on. (Although I think it would work better as a late fall/early winter seasonal.)

Rather than stopping by the next time you're in the Las Cruces area, El Pasoans should make a trip to De La Vega's. And if any of you out-of-staters come to visit, this is where we're taking you for dinner.