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Is Sao Mai Our Best Vietnamese Restaurant?

No cuisine is as obsessed with fresh herbs as Vietnamese. Take the papaya salad ($8.50) at Sao Mai. In the moist toss of pale green fruit and bright orange carrots—both shredded into shoelaces—darker flecks catch the eye, like exotic birds flitting through foliage. And when you take your first bite, these pungent herbs assail the tongue in wonderful ways. Holy basil, better than a licorice Twizzler. Peppermint, reminding you to brush your teeth. And Vietnamese mint, flinging off a smoky and spicy scent—you’ve never tasted anything like it before. Garnished with crushed goobers and laved in a mild vinaigrette, the salad will leave you wanting more, much more.

Situated on First Avenue in the East Village, Sao Mai (“Morning Star”) was the subject of a partial review by Lauren Shockey in the Voice last February. But over several visits in the past few months, I’ve become convinced it might be the best Vietnamese restaurant in town. The room is deep, with seating in several isolated areas. A framed collection of butterflies provides decoration, and French doors open onto the busy thoroughfare, allowing you to enjoy the street without actually sitting on the sidewalk. Released from the confines of Chinatown—where many Vietnamese restaurants are found—Sao Mai doesn’t have a menu larded with Chinese dishes or dumbed down for tourists. In fact, the bill of fare is refreshingly short, offering fewer than 70 selections, rather than the usual 150 or so.

A commonly heard assertion is that real pho—pronounced “fffffuh,” like air escaping from a tire—doesn’t exist in Gotham. Detractors point out how great this noodle soup can be in Houston; San Jose; Falls Church, Virginia; and even Atlantic City—places with a significant Vietnamese population. (As of the last census, NYC had about one-third the Vietnamese immigrants Houston does.) Our broths are too dense and sweet, aficionados say, the cinnamon and star anise too pronounced, and the herbs not fresh or diverse enough. Well, they now have Sao Mai’s pho to consider. As with the papaya salad, green herbs are a highlight, with holy basil and the rarely seen sawtooth Vietnamese cilantro abundantly served on a side plate, to be tossed in from time to time at your discretion.

The flavoring of the broth is surpassingly subtle, the density light as a stray sunbeam. It reminds you that back in Hanoi, where the soup originated a century ago, pho is often a breakfast dish. Rather than overwhelming you with dozens of choices, Sao Mai offers seven, with three devoted to traditional beef combinations. The house special ($9) features brisket and rib eye, with rubbery fish balls bobbing in between. The brisket is fatty as all get out; while the thinly sliced steak is lean and nearly raw. In a subcontinent that overwhelmingly prefers pork, the beef used in pho is something of a throwback to French colonial days, but whether the broth shows more Chinese or Gallic influences, I leave for you to decide.

Beef also shines in goi bo ($8.50)—a watercress salad served on a bed of tomatoes and sprinkled with crunchy fried shallots—and in bun bo nurong, little cylinders of grilled beef accompanied by paddies of rice vermicelli, to be wrapped with fresh mint in lettuce leaves and dipped in nuoc cham, a mild fish-flavored vinegar. Don’t you dare spill any on your pants, or cats will be chasing you down the street.

There is one menu section to stay away from. Supposedly cooked in a clay pot, the stews called kho ought to have a thick caramel gravy. What arrives is more like a waterlogged stir-fry of pork, shrimp, tofu, or fish, depending on which variety you choose. Much more compelling are the tamarind-laced soups called canh chua, further thickened with tomato and a good dose of hot chiles. The shrimp ($9) was my favorite. Don’t be surprised if you find some pineapple floating around in there.

Despite the shortened menu, all the Vietnamese standards are present, including bargain grilled pork chops over rice, and an exemplary banh cuon ($7). While most places make this crepe the easy way using an omelet wrapper, Sao Mai deploys the preferable rice-noodle covering, filling it with minced pork and mushrooms. But Sao Mai’s most unique offering is “pho banh mi,” a baguette sandwich bulging not with the usual pork products, but with beef, herbs, and sprouts. Making pho into a sandwich is a flawed conceit, to be sure—but it’s damn fun to eat.

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Sao Mai and Xe May Sandwich Shop: Finally, Your Banh Mi Tacos

It was an auspicious beginning: a squat stack of culantro nestled against the branches of Thai basil and crisp bean sprouts on the herb plate accompanying my pho. It’s rare to find the dark green, jagged leaves in Vietnamese restaurants in New York City, as most eateries substitute the blander and more ubiquitous cilantro. Yes, my meal at Sao Mai, a casual Vietnamese joint on First Avenue in the East Village, was off to a promising start.

Unlike San José, Houston, and even the northern Virginia suburbs, the Big Apple isn’t a hotbed of Vietnamese cuisine. Nevertheless, the brick-walled storefront marks a refreshing stop for flavorful—if standard—Southeast Asian fare. Begin by plopping down on the black banquette underneath the fake bamboo plants and slurping some soup. The classic beefy pho ($9) comes showered with scallions and herbs and warms the gullet, but I actually preferred the more delicate chicken version ($8). Yes, the broccoli and celery slices were odd choices and should be nixed, but the stock—garnished with fried onions—was rich, and the noodles retained a snappy bite. Canh chua ($8), a tart tamarind broth accented with tomatoes and pineapple, works if you’re looking for something spicier. Not quite as sour as other versions I’ve had but still a keeper.

Bánh cuôn, or steamed rice crepe ($7), makes for a welcome change from the de rigueur summer roll. Minced pork and wood’s ear mushrooms arrive wrapped in pliant rice paper, delicate and savory. Looking for something cool and crunchy? Go for the lotus-root salad ($8.50)—though you might want to avoid the shrimp on top, which had an off-putting, muddy taste on one occasion. Or dive into the $16 sampler plate for some DIY-wrapping action. It’s chock-full of everything from barbecued shrimp and pork to pickled carrots to flat, woven noodle sheets and lettuce leaves.

Among the heftier plates, get down with the grilled chicken ($12), super moist and singing with carbonized char. Or if you gave up meat for Lent, try the crispy, stuffed tofu on a bed of bok choy ($10.50). Not everything’s a winner, though. Skip the clay-pot dishes ($10 to $12), which feature a runny sauce overpowered by a glut of green bell peppers.

While Sao Mai dishes up the classics, the tiny Xe May Sandwich Shop, a few blocks away on St. Marks Place, is decidedly 21st century. With just four stools, it specializes in fusion banh mi, the popular baguette-based hoagies brimming with assorted cold cuts, pickled vegetables, and herbs. The sammies are quite good, especially the Super Cub Classic ($6), which piles on headcheese, pork roll, and a livery pâté. The Lam’bretta ($6.50)—which tucks thinly sliced lamb in a mild coconut-curry sauce into a soft, chewy loaf—works well, too, especially when paired with a cooling basil-limeade soda ($2.50). But the most intriguing menu items? The banh mi tacos ($2.50).

Yes, you read that correctly. Less than a decade ago, the city went wild overnight for Vietnamese sandwiches. Then beginning in 2010, the Korean-taco craze migrated from Southern California, and kimchi-spiked beef wrapped inside tortillas was all the rage. Now comes the apotheosis of culinary trendiness. In truth, these Mexicamese snacks don’t work nearly as well as the sandwiches, mostly because the fillings are too dry for the corn disks. But it’s an interesting glimpse into the fluidity among cuisines nowadays and the warp speed at which culinary fads evolve. And it’s likely only the beginning. Spring roll manicotti, anyone?

 

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Two-Man Kidnapping Rule Helps Debut the New Ohio Theatre

Hearts broke downtown last year when the Ohio Theatre closed its doors, yet another sad casualty of the real estate machine. A Soho staple that housed early works by Tony Kushner and Mark Morris as well as companies such as Target Margin and New Georges, the expansive, loft-like space gave the impression of attending a chic party where people happened to perform plays. Well, after 20-plus years south of Houston, the Ohio (now tacking on the “New” moniker) has found a new home on Christopher Street, with a 10-year lease, a 72-seat black box in a lovely co-op, and a burgeoning outreach program centering on building college audiences. Everything seems in line to achieve maximum momentum. One has to hope, however, that the theater will yield more inspired works than one of its inaugural productions—Joseph Gallo’s testo-laden ode to dudehood, Two-Man Kidnapping Rule.

The title comes from a lifelong pact enacted by a band of New Jersey compadres in which one guy must go along with a scenario (however nutty) as long as two others feel it’s in the best interest of the one who’s waffling. As the play begins, we meet paunchy New York Giants would-be Jack (Curran Cooper) who’s stewing over his former love and her new fiancé (a Dallas Cowboys player = the enemy). His slick, bro’s-before-’hos pal Vincent (Duane Cooper) tries to convince Jack to explore a boys’ night of debauchery to cheer him up. Enter a third figure —the puppyish, about-to-get-hitched Seth (Andy Lutz), who’s equally excited and terrified about leaving bachelorhood behind.

The trio talk big, get in a scuffle, test loyalties…you know the drill. If only that drill ever rose above wan NBC-comedy patter. Also, despite a piquant observation here and there about the eternal manchild, the work bears evidence of non-judicious cutting: An actress is credited in the program who never once appears, and an oft-mentioned fourth buddy (who also never appears) seems a superfluous addition to an already-languorous two hours. Put simply, Two-Man never really adds up.

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It’s the Real and the Rise of the Rap Nerd

Eric and Jeff Rosenthal, the comedy-rap duo known as It’s the Real, are huddled near a Canon XL2 camera in rap label E1 Music’s offices in the East Village, working on their latest video. Eric is the older brother with curly locks spilling onto his forehead; Jeff is the taller one in Reebok Pumps. Both, however, crane their necks upward to regard Houston rapper Slim Thug, who has gamely agreed to co-star. The Rosenthals aren’t employed by a label, a production company, or anyone else—they’re in it mostly for the yuks. For this clip, Jeff plays a clueless Verizon operator.

“May I get your first and last name, please?”

“Slim Thug.”

“How can I help you today, Mr. Thug?”

“Please, Mr. Thug is my father. Call me Slim.”

As it turns out, Slim has been receiving all sorts of random calls, owing to the fact that his new phone number, 281-330-8004, formerly belonged to another Houston rapper: Mike Jones.

Inquires Jeff: “Who?”

“Funny,” says Slim, slamming down his phone.

If you don’t get the joke, well, then you’re not the intended audience for It’s the Real, which for three years has featured the Rosenthals’ rap-themed clips: Works this year include “Jay ElecLeBronica” and “Kat Stacks: Last Comic Kneeling,” which offers you the opportunity to see the vixen “in a position she’s never been in before: standing up.” Funded entirely out of the brothers’ own pockets, the clips get wide play on rap blogs—sometimes hundreds of thousands of views—and draw celebrity appearances. Cam’ron dispensed advice to teenage girls, while Clipse discussed “rapper fraud.” For the shorts they filmed with Nick Cannon, he insisted they call him a cornball.

Publicists now regularly offer up their famous clients; surprisingly, just about everyone skewered “gets it,” with the exception of one rap personality the Rosenthals prefer not to name. (He and a handler threw a drink in Eric’s face and manhandled Jeff at a club.) “Since they’re not journalists or radio personalities, people kind of take it as just a lighthearted joke,” says Bun B, who appears in a sketch where Eric calls him “the Fresh Prince of the Texas State Fair—Trill Smith.” “If they were, say, Source employees, it would have been like they were taking a shot, trying to damage credibility. But even people who were made fun of [work with them]. You gotta be able to laugh at yourself.”

Attempting to expand their satirical empire, the Rosenthals are recording a comedy album, featuring their own rapping and production from childhood friend Greg Mayo. (It includes a bar mitzvah-inspired dance called the “Upper West Slide”; they claim major-label interest.) They’ve also got a podcast called Hype Men: Launched in August and co-hosted by an L.A.-based fan-turned-friend named Jensen Karp, the series purports to “dissect hip-hop in the way it should be, which is by three Jewish white kids.” Recorded in the Rosenthal apartment’s kitchen/living room/dining room with a different rap artist or comedian guest each week, the hour-long episodes are funny and addictive, and have quickly gone viral, peaking at more than 10,000 downloads per week. (They usually tape when Karp is in town on business, although they recently finished a batch in L.A.) The show’s best moments are never-before-heard anecdotes from guests like Just Blaze, who in October discussed the degeneration of his relationship with Damon Dash.

No matter who’s involved, however, Karp does most of the talking. Nowadays the co-owner of a pair of pop-culture–themed California art galleries, he’s quicker-tongued than a meth addict and boasts an endless supply of stories from his former rap career. As a 12-year-old Calabasas battle MC, he was christened Hot Karl by Ice-T because he “shit on” his opponents, and was later signed to Interscope after his mom befriended Mack 10’s mother. (True stories.) He recorded with a then-unknown Kanye West, was made into a short-shorts-clad avatar in NBA Live 2003, and eventually put out his album The Great Escape on Headless Heroes. What he was clearly put on earth to do, however, was discuss Ken Griffey Jr.’s brief rap career.

“When he was 19, he released a rap song with Kid Sensation, who was this big rapper out of Seattle, and by big rapper, I mean number two behind Sir Mix-a-Lot, the only big rapper from Seattle,” he explains on the Hype Men episode dedicated to professional-athlete music crossovers. “This song was called ‘The Way I Swing.’ I have the cassette single at home.”

The trio makes it difficult to remember a time when “nerd” was an actual pejorative—they regard it as the ultimate compliment. (Bestowed on anyone who can name the St. Lunatic affiliate who wears the Phantom of the Opera mask, for example.) As Karp explains, “I always say to my girlfriend—who I believe is way more attractive than me and way out of my league—that I’m very lucky people like Seth Rogen have made being this kind of nerd really popular.”

As for the Rosenthal brothers, who learned video at Purchase Day Camp and later crafted rap mixtapes making fun of the other campers, they dream of somehow monetizing their act, perhaps by writing for a show like Saturday Night Live. They just signed with a manager, but as it stands, they’re surviving off freelance video work and unemployment benefits—dicey, considering Jeff is 26 and Eric just turned 30. Still, their shtick has vaulted them into the worlds of the rappers they grew up idolizing. And despite their strictly non-hip-hop backgrounds, they’ve won over the industry by not pretending to be anything more than the Westchester-bred cultural co-opters they truly are.

“We never want to disrespect the genre,” says Eric. “We want to use it as a platform to speak our own truths.” More pointed than the Lonely Island, more inspired than Jay Smooth, and less obvious than Jamie Kennedy, their work seems informed by a genuine love for rap. Even when it’s, say, a video imagining a manufacturer’s recall of a Lil Kim doll, which, by the way, “does not come with any original parts.”

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‘Day Job’ at the Drawing Center; Steve DiBenedetto’s ‘Who Wants to Know?’ at David Nolan

The hoary advice handed to first-time novelists­—”Write about what you know”­—may not have an equivalent in the visual arts, but the ever-inventive Drawing Center makes a pretty good case for the daily grind as inspiration’s primary source. For this engaging, refreshingly candid exhibit, curator Nina Katchadourian asked members of the museum’s Viewing Program, a registry of under-recognized artists, to submit pieces influenced by their means of support, otherwise known as “day jobs.” Culled from 300 responses, the selections range from delightful fantasies to fascinating takes on the mundane.

Chris Akin, a guard at Houston’s Menil Collection, stares at a lot of famous paintings, but finds himself enthralled by the floor, sketching different views of its angular outlines—Minimalist geometric studies, which almost appear like charts of Akin’s introspection. Likewise, Harvey Tulcensky (art handler) and Shawn Kuruneru (artist’s assistant) transform the monotony of their daily tasks into obsessive mark-making, inking paper with super-dense clouds of dots or slashes that suggest an intense kind of therapy.

The jobs’ influences are often more direct. The paintings of Tom Hooper, who creates effects and props for One Life to Live, emerge over the course of a day on an illustration board, which accumulates accidents and experiments. The marvelous Misinterpret floats a sketched character from the soap opera in a turbulent sea of color tests, paint spills, and penciled notes. Across the gallery, medical illustrator Roberto Osti assumes a Dr. Frankenstein alter ego, drawing the color-coded musculature of a horned shaman, while Mary Lydecker, a landscape architect, seamlessly splices together (with scissors and tape) scenes from different picture postcards, creating discordant and unsettling new vistas.

Elsewhere, in a short documentary, Julia Oldham, who makes science videos, amusingly describes a failed collaboration with two physicists, sketching symbols of logic to diagram the trio’s personal struggles. It’s a charming work that, like many others here, stretches the notion of drawing and carries a comforting message: The urge to make art can thrive just about anywhere.

Steve DiBenedetto: ‘Who Wants to Know?’

Ever watch an amusement park at night with your eyes dilated by good dope? That’s how it feels to stand in front of Steve DiBenedetto’s recent paintings and drawings. Much less representational than earlier efforts, the new works present complex, vaguely mechanical systems of spirals, blobs, angular constructions, and tangled tubing—all connected and glowing like neon.

When DiBenedetto’s favorite subjects (octopus, helicopter, building) do occasionally make an appearance, as in Spiral, they’re pretty much overwhelmed by the dream-state kaleidoscope. Yet for all the chaos of line, form, and loose brushwork, he keeps things under control with the careful placement of pinks, oranges, yellows, and greens, expertly balancing their vibrancy like a latter-day Fauvist. David Nolan Gallery, 527 W 29th, 212-925-6190. Through January 8

George Widener: ‘Dates’

Examine the exquisitely shaded background of George Widener’s Blue Monday Reversal and you’ll find that what appears to be stippling is actually a series of minutely written dates—all the Mondays, between the years 2000 and 3000. A savant diagnosed with Asperger’s, Widener derives much of his art from the stunning calculations he performs with days and years, arranging numbers into complex matrices, variously playful, poignant, or inscrutable. His large engraving-like work 4421—dominated by rows of mysterious horizontal blocks—displays the results of a personal numerology applied to that far-in-the-future year. Similarly, in Huge Disasters, the dates of major catastrophes appear in clever mathematical grids known as magic squares. The Titanic, a recurring motif for the artist (a George Widener died in the sinking), gets its own work, which surrounds the ship with years it might have known.

Drawn on glued-together scraps of found paper with blocky, old-fashioned type, the pieces often suggest puzzles from century-old books. But Widener is always imagining the future, most obviously in the tidy, symmetrical cities from his Megalopolis series. Less apparent is his interest in the so-called “technological singularity,” a speculated time when computers are more intelligent than humans: Those numerals he circles are codes for robots. Quirky and original, Widener’s work will surely have long-term appeal—whether for man or machine. Ricco Maresca Gallery, 529 W 20th, 212-627-4819. Through December 29

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Hill Country Chicken Goes Low in the Pecking Order

I’m a Texas barbecue fanatic, and Hill Country is my favorite place to grab the luscious slow-smoked ribs and fat-rimmed brisket that epitomize the genre. Which is why I was so stoked to try its new offshoot, Hill Country Chicken. One might assume that the titular poultry would also be barbecued, but when news of the place started leaking out, it proved to be just another fried-chicken joint, capitalizing on the battered bird’s current brushfire popularity, which originated in Brooklyn. But even before I went, my Houston friend Justin offered a word of caution: “Fried chicken? That’s not really very Texas, is it?”

While the original Hill Country is made up to resemble a Lone Star barbecue, Hill Country Chicken has no such design antecedents, except perhaps Popeye’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The place is cunningly located at the corner of 25th Street and Broadway, in a neighborhood being remade as a foodie destination through the combined efforts of Danny Meyer and Eataly. The interior is painfully fast-foody: eye-searing yellow, tempered with powder blue and beige—an ungainly color scheme intent on convincing you to eat and run. Tables surrounded by dinette chairs offer a down-home touch, and there are also high counters that invite you to perch, like a laying hen in a coop. (More photos of Hill Country Chicken .)

The chef of record is Elizabeth Karmel, but why, you wonder, does a fried-chicken joint need a chef? Despite my misgivings, I found myself pecking at a few good things. On one of the last warm, sunny days of autumn, I sat outside in the impromptu sidewalk café enjoying the Texas hand roll, vegetarian version ($9): two generous slabs of ripe avocado, glowing green within their brittle cornflake crusts, dressed with coleslaw and a sweet-hot dressing, rolled inside a flour tortilla.

With little pieces of skin adhering, the French fries were passable, too, and so was the buttermilk biscuit ($1), though meager in size for the price. But, collapsing under the onslaught of its own greasiness, the deep-fried pimento-cheese sandwich turned out to be a bad idea, rather than junk-food nirvana. A notable invention—though it seems like something copied from one of the “white trash” cookbooks of the ’80s—the side of “cheesy fried mashed potatoes” is delicious, in a boarding-school sort of way. But most of the sides are as forgettable as those at the original Hill Country.

But how was the chicken, you wonder? As with Texas barbecue, I have fixed notions about how poultry should be fried, and my ideas come from Georgia and the Carolinas—via Harlem and Brooklyn—rather than Texas. The pieces should be lightly floured and carefully cooked with the skin on, until they reach a burnished golden brown. Further imitating KFC, two types of chicken are offered at Hill Country. Unfortunately, both are severely flawed. What’s more, prices are high for a fast-food place, ranging from $1.75 for a wing to $5.50 for a breast.

The first, called Hill Country Classic, has been “brined in buttermilk,” according to the hype—though buttermilk and brine are two different things. I’m not a fan of any fried-chicken recipe involving buttermilk, since it contains a protein that blackens as the chicken cooks. Indeed, the Hill Country Classic is often fried too dark and has an annoyingly sweet aftertaste.

The second, called Mama Els’ in an admirable display of correct punctuation, begins with the cooks’ unconscionable act of ripping the skin off the bird. Everyone knows the skin is the best part, so who in their right mind would remove it? Back in the ’90s, skin was accused by nutty nutritionists of being unhealthy, and the skinless chicken breast as a culinary institution was born. In lieu of skin, Mama Els’ applies a crunchy coating, which confers little in the way of flavor. I want my skin back!

Shamelessly imitating Brooklyn’s Pies-N-Thighs, Hill Country Chicken offers a co-specialty of circular crusted desserts. Actually, the boasted-of pies rarely get made, and the place has substituted little tarts, which are presumably much easier and cheaper to make—though a real pie or two is usually on display. The tarts are disappointing—heavy on crust, light on filling. Most are of the icebox variety, and the few made with fruit often deploy a canned product swimming in cornstarch. The worst is the Texas Billionaire ($3 tart, $5 slice), containing chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, and coconut flakes, a concoction sweet enough to make your jaw ache. It’s a pie trying to be a candy bar—and succeeding.

rsietsema@villagevoice.com

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Nitzer Ebb

Quasi-fascist, German-imitating, proto-industrial Electronic Body Music pioneers from the UK: Nitzer Ebb tried awful hard to seem dangerous, but their harsh records still find a well-deserved place in many techno DJs’ bags. The ’80s trio has reunited and promises a new album, but fans will likely be happy just to hear aggressive, barking hits such as “Join in the Chant” and “Control, I’m Here” again. Wax Trax-obsessed new Houston trio TENSE opens.

Tue., Nov. 16, 7 p.m., 2010

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Some of Their Best Friends are Mexicans

Dear Mexican: I’m not the type to let things slide when I see something that strikes me as ignorant, no matter who it is. When my friend’s mom posted jokes on Facebook about Mexicans, and her friends popped up with comments I felt were racist, I just had to step in and say something. They responded with “My best friend is a Mexican,” and “I know lots of Mexicans, and I think they’re good people,” and all that. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen it. Why do people think it’s OK to say racist things as long as they can say they have a Mexican friend? Isn’t this kind of like the kid in grade school who tells you, “Hey, I’m going to make you look stupid in front of the other kids to make myself look good—don’t take it personally?” Personally, I can’t fathom calling somebody my friend, then bashing their culture. It makes no sense to me. What’s your opinion on this? —Bailarina Confundida en el Valle Felíz

Dear Confused Ballerina in Happy Valley: Of course racists aren’t racists, and how dare you allege that! They’re just saying the truth! Racists can’t possibly be racists because they have colored friends—and those minorities not only agree with their non-racist amigos, they’re even more non-racist against their own kind and that makes it even more OK to be truthful! Know Nothings have long used this twisted logic to argue that their rants are right (witness those lunatics who say Arizona’s reprehensible S.B.1070 and Most-Corrupt-Sheriff-in-America Joe Arpayaso enjoy support from “Hispanics,” and that the two are therefore not anti-Mexican) in an attempt to shut up opponents—I do believe that logical fallacy is called appeal to authority. Or is it honor by association? I forget. Anyhoo, ¡A LA CHINGADA CON ARPAYASO Y S.B.1070!

Why is it that when Mexicans see a cop on the side of the road giving someone a ticket, they change their Spanish music to some American station? Then, after they pass, they go back to the Spanish station. —FM Fool

Dear Gabacho: Same reason we take off our sombreros when encountering the same scenario: don’t want to get pulled over for a DWM (Driving While Mexican).

I live in what’s known as the East End in Houston. I love the area, which has a lot of Mexicans; unlike the ‘burbs, the area has character, a great urban atmosphere, wonderful architecture, and restaurants other than the cookie-cutter corporate garbage I was used to. I’m curious, however, as to why there’s a used-tire shop about every six blocks! Do my neighbors never buy new tires? What’s the deal with the scores of tire shops? —Transplanted Suburban Gabacho

Dear Gabacho: Simple capitalism. Houston has no municipal zoning code, which creates a libertarian paradise of businessmen opening nearly whatever they want nearly wherever they want according to the peculiarities of the market. Since Houston’s East End host some of the city’s traditional barrios, it follows that negocios catering to a working-class clientele would flourish here and in other barrios: segundas (thrift stores), Laundromats, water stores, taquerías, fake documents sold from a cell-phone accessories storefront, and used-tire shops. It’s not that Mexicans won’t buy new tires, or even that we can’t afford it: It’s that we’re always looking to save dinero, and the opportunity to get a discount is as irresistible to a Mexican as crossing the border without papers. And please don’t think we’re putting the public at risk, gabachos: No one knows more about the gradations of a balding tire than a Mexican dad or tío.

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HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

Whether in litigation over his Obama “Hope” poster or showing his work on Houston and Bowery, artist Shepard Fairey still found time in his busy schedule to help local kids create some street art of their own. Back in May, Fairey, along with more than a hundred youths from CityKids, a New York nonprofit, created A Positive Thought Cannot Be Denied, a mural that incorporates Fairey’s own street-art aesthetic and iconic images to express the youths’ perspectives on social-justice issues such as teen violence, the environment, and education. The mural, displayed in a series of 8-by-11-foot panels, will be unveiled today in the World Financial Center Courtyard Gallery.

Oct. 3-17, 2010

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Luke Wilson Brings Hardcore to the Masses in Middle Men

If the plot of Middle Men sounds familiar—Luke Wilson gets in bed with James Caan, who just wants to fuck him—that’s because it’s the same as the plot of Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson’s 1996 directorial debut, in which Wilson and Caan worked together for the first time. Middle Men is that tale told without the hard-boiled whimsy, though the classic-rock score remains: Wilson plays a relatively decent guy embraced by Caan’s sleazebag operator, who then introduces him to the idiots who will bring about his ultimate undoing.

Wilson plays Jack Harris, a wholly fictionalized character—“based on a true story,” not so much—who, according to George Gallo and Andy Weiss’s screenplay, helps introduce pornography to the World Wide Web and the World Wide Web to your credit card. But Jack’s just the middleman: He clears the path for the inventors of online porn (Giovanni Ribisi as Wayne, Gabriel Macht as Buck), paying off all gangsters, attorneys, and other crooks and cronies who come at him.

Told in flashback, it’s first a stormy night in Houston, 2004. Jack’s peeling out of the driveway beneath an apocalyptic storm with $4 mil in a zipped-up bag. Bad things are happening, he tells the audience, and all because “I figured out a better way for guys to jack off.” Cut to: Houston, 1998, a church social with fried chicken, balloons, and the Girl of Jack’s Dreams (Diana, played by Jacinda Barrett). Cut to Los Angeles, 1997, and Wayne and Buck snorting coke in a smoky, cramped apartment, short on jerk-off options.

Called west by a wife’s friend to rescue a nightclub, Jack lands in Los Angeles like all starry-eyed comers from the flyover who seek reinvention. Before long, he’s a modest success as a self-proclaimed No. 1 Problem Solver, at which point Caan, as Vegas shyster Jerry Haggerty, rings up Jack and asks him to help Wayne and Buck square their debt to the Russian mob, fronted by Rade Serbedzija as Nikita Sokoloff (because Boris Badenov was already spoken for, da?). And next thing ya know ol’ Jack’s a millionaire; come ’03 he’s living large in hardcore (“a world without filters,” he justifies) and leaving behind the mundane humdrum of Houston, where he’s stashed away Diana and kids in an enormous house he’s stopped visiting.
Jack’s new perks include private jets and porn-star privates (Jack shacks up with Laura Ramsey’s starlet, who brags of her “tighter pussy”). But the downside’s always around the corner in a movie like this; one minute you’re knee-deep in dough and, strange, the next you’re being visited by an FBI agent played by Kevin Pollak who likes you enough to give you this one warning, see?

But for all that predictability, Middle Men is smart and tense, with each scene drenched in dread: Something bad’s coming, but when? Still, as a soap, it could use more opera. Directed and co-written by Gallo, still best known for having done Midnight Run back when Charles Grodin was famous, Middle Men is ultimately Scorsese-lite—Goodfellas set in naked lady–filled San Fernando Valley office complexes, with Wilson narrating his rise and fall and, he hopes, redemption. The Stones on the soundtrack are too dead-on; the homage is obvious. And the movie’s a bit undone, amazingly enough, by its brevity, a running time of not much more than 100 minutes—surprising given the indulgence of most tepid feature films these days.

Middle Men‘s characters are intriguing enough that it’s a shame when, just as we want to know more, it’s off to another place with another thing with another guy who either wants to kill Luke Wilson or get money from Luke Wilson or kill Luke Wilson and then take his money. There’s little time to luxuriate in the opulence of porn’s profits, and little time to suffocate in the feeling of walls closing in on and crushing the poor bastard who thought he’d gotten the Good Life.

Thankfully, then, even without much character development, the compelling story holds, mostly due to Wilson. Jack’s a solid center—the guy treats every encounter, no matter how intimate or dangerous, like a business transaction. He gets stuff done, even if it involves blackmailing the Harris County district attorney, who insists on prosecuting Jack’s son for high school grade tampering. Easily Wilson’s best performance since Bottle Rocket (and don’t say The Royal Tenenbaums, because Gene Hackman swallowed the cast whole, which was the point). Definitely better than those AT&T ads.