Working the territory

By P.G. Barnum

Like most poker players have their favorite cardrooms, I have my favorite restau­rants. They’re more than just a place to eat—they’re the neighborhood’s lightning rod. Good or bad economy, restaurants see the bump or the dive the quickest. They’re also a good place to meet and watch people (second only to casinos). For a man who lives on the poker trail, knowing the good restaurants is a must.

The mission was to manage my way through Northern California without attracting too much attention, while leaving a healthy trail of poker papers in my wake. Being mindful not to step on people’s toes or break their eardrums isn’t easy for an ex-carnival barker, so I had to be careful. Sometimes my enthusiasm works against me (like the time I accidently left a bundle at the religious bookstore—but that’s another story).

When my mission was still in the planning stages one thing became clear- find some good places to eat along the way. This was paramount to the operation.

When my mission was still in the planning stages one thing became clear—find some good places to eat along the way. This was paramount to the operation. My next priority was to think of a few dishes that fit my dietary requirements (semi low-fat, high volume, fast, and delicious), yet were still appealing to me after eating them for a week straight. There’s no better way to compare a dish than to eat it every day at a different place. After many hours of careful consideration I began my quest for Kung Pao chicken and barbecue.

After loading my car with enough poker papers to pop all four tires, there was barely enough space for a deck of cards and my appetite put together. I started with the East Bay trail between Pacheco and Livermore, since this area is ripe with good restaurants. It wasn’t hard to find the smell I was looking for.

I started at the California Grand Casino in Pacheco. I heard their Asian menu was good, but I never judge until I try it myself. I sat at the bar in front of a crystal clear flatscreen TV and enjoyed a heaping plate of Kung Pao chicken. It normally takes about two seconds to figure out if it’s good, but it didn’t take even that long for my taste buds to come out and play. They responded immediately to the spicy, yet still slightly sweet flavor.

The bar was set after my first stop. Hungrily, I headed to Livermore where I promptly got stuck in traffic and missed an opportunity to dine at the Livermore Casino. With Mark Lamb (our 2010 POY) raving about their cuisine on my cell phone, I sucked fumes on the 580. I need to get back for their four year anniversary bash on May 8 and try again.

Since missing lunch was definitely not part of the plan, I was happy to find two very worthy places on the east end of town that evening. Me ‘n Cha’s Flavor of Vietnam and China Pavilion both share the same parking lot on North Vasco. This meant I could park once and eat twice while delivering a couple bundles of papers.

Me ‘n Cha’s proved to be a very pleasant surprise. I didn’t expect to see barbecue hero-style sandwiches on the menu. The guy I usually say “hi” to is a Vietnamese gentleman named Carlos Rivera. I asked Carlos about the origins of the Vietnamese barbecue hero sandwich and he regaled me with a story worthy of the History Channel. According to Carlos, after the French fled Vietnam they managed to leave behind one good thing—French bread (the baguette, in particular).

With the recipe for good French bread now in their hands, the barbecue hero sandwich was born in Southeast Asia. Carlos also informed me that wild boar became highly sought after because it was a natural fit with a freshly baked baguette. I immediately ordered a barbecued pork sandwich and was not disappointed. It was so tasty that I ordered another one for later. While I wasn’t expecting to eat barbecue when I walked in, I left wishing I had a history lesson and a sandwich with Carlos a whole lot sooner.

Next up was the place across the parking lot that I’ve always wanted to try, China Pavilion. Their manager, David, was there to greet me as I walked in with a fresh bundle. When he saw it my hands the first thing he said was, “What took so long?” My instincts were right—this was my kind of place. I immediately sat down and ordered the Kung Pao Chicken with a side of pot stickers.

I’ve noticed something about myself when the food is good—I have a hard time reading the sports section because I’m too busy with my knife and fork. When my eating utensils have formed a conveyor belt to my mouth it’s much more difficult to check the scores. I had a hard time pausing long enough to simply turn a page. But the Kung Pao was succulent and the pot stickers fat and juicy (I had them with plum sauce) so the scores would have to wait.

From there I had to head south before I could go north—all the way to Hanford. This was gonna be the long way to Sacramento, but with Tachi Palace in nearby Lemoore and the beautiful new Aviator Casino just down Highway 99, Hanford has become a good spot for poker papers. I was almost out of papers that day when I squeezed out a last bundle for Stan, the guy who owns a barbecue place called The Smoke Joint. I couldn’t sit down fast enough after the smell of his BBQ wafted up my nose.

I knew from the Gold Rush re-runs they had playing on the TV that the ambience was right for a roll of paper towels and some barbecued ribs. I dove right into them without putting on my eating clothes (a tyvex suit left over from my days as a hazmat dummy). Big mistake, because the ribs I had were like kryptonite in my hands—I was powerless to stop eating them! While there will probably never be such a thing as a low fat rib, who cares when they taste so good!

Finally, I was in position to head back north to Sacramento. Everyone in downtown Sac knows how good Capitol Casino’s Asian menu is, and I was ready for my Kung Pao finale. I understood there was also an excellent barbecue place close by called Sandra Dee’s Barbecue and Seafood. I thought to myself, “This could be another two-fer.” And I was right.

Capitol Casino’s Kung Pao chicken was my favorite meal of the week. By the time I walked in I felt like I had a pretty good barometer going from an excellent run of other fine restaurants. They were all outstanding in their own way but this one really stood out. For the first time I had brown rice with my Kung Pao—something I had never seen served before with that particular dish. Along with the hot, spicy, sweet taste that I look for came large pieces of bell pepper, onion, and peanuts in a neatly glazed pile. The presentation was as good as the sauce, and that’s saying something.

With the Kung Pao portion of my quest now complete, I headed over to Sandra Dee’s and tried a double turkey burger with deep fried alligator nuggets. The guy behind the bar is a man named “B” who, with a straight face, suggested that I “try the red sauce.” Being a sucker for good sauce I took his advice seriously. This stuff was so good it relieved my sinus pressure, and cured my asthma. Smothered in that sauce, my turkey burger was lean, mean, large and tasty—just the way I like it.

By the time the deep fried alligator nuggets showed up my taste buds were set on high. “B” told me that those nuggets come from a full tail that is sent to them direct so they can dice them up in the back. In retrospect, I should have rested after the turkey burger to concentrate on hydration, but I just couldn’t put down those nuggets.

As I finished off the last morsel of that alligator, I felt sad that my quest had come to an end. With so many good restaurants and so little time it was impossible to visit them all. But I will try again—beginning with the next poker paper.