Eating at US Restaurants

I do a fair bit of eating out. Here are some weirdly annoying things and nice things about eating out at US restaurants. Here I refer to the sit-down restaurants with service.

First the annoying bits:

  • One has to wait to be seated. I understand if there is a crowd, then somebody manages the seating, but even in empty restaurants one has to wait for someone to come and escort you to a table. The weird thing is that some random table is usually picked out and asking for a specific table usually gets a reaction as if one is asking for VIP treatment.
  • The US is a large and spacious country and restaurants in turn tend to be large and spacious, but many of them cram tables right next to each other. You can usually overhear conversations from around you. It can get super loud and on your nerves. (The Diner style of restaurants usually have comfortably spaced out seating and don’t have this problem.)
  • There seems to be no established convention to get the attention of your waiter. In India, “Boss” usually works, but here you have to awkwardly wait for the waiter to meet your eye. In busy restaurants, this is quite difficult and one usually end up playing a bizarre waiting game

There are some nice things too of course !

  • Water and soft drinks are usually served with ice. They usually serve a straw as well for easy drinking !
  • Portion sizes tend to be large. Plan to share ūüôā
  • It is completely normal to get the leftovers packed. Restaurants usually do a great job of nicely packing stuff
  • Probably linked to the whole tipping culture, but in general waiters take the time to explain the menu and do a decent job of recommending items when you are lost

The year that was – 2017

2017 was a year of big changes for me. I had decided that it would be a good move to get back into academia from industry. There is an acknowledged gap between Software Engineering research and industry that I was personally beginning to feel. I decided to apply to some PhD programs in the US and try my luck. I wasn’t too sure about my chances about being accepted since I had reasonably good amount of work experience and it was a while since I had been in school. Consequently, in my statement of purpose I reflected on interesting research problems that stemmed from my work experience. Given, that Software Engineering is an applied field, I think this resonated well with the universities. (If you are a mid career professional looking to apply to a PhD program – do reach out to me, I can perhaps help you in your journey !) I was fortunate to be offered an admission at USC. Fast forward and I am now part of the Software Architecture research group and completed my first semester.

It has been a change of location for me too – I moved from one huge metropolis to another. Bangalore to Los Angeles. 2018 is going to a busy year for me and will hopefully be a productive one.

Happy new year !

What is life ?

Fireflies at Ochanomizu LACMA M.71.100.82

What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
— Chief Crowfoot, 1890

Beauty and the Beast

We recognize the idea of beauty easily. A good looking person, a nice house or even something as simple as a well manicured lawn. However, I am concerned that this notion of beauty and aesthetics is rapidly disappearing from the Indian mindset. There is a very narrow minded approach to brute force functionality – if it works, what else do you need ? For instance, take TV cables – cable operators run wiring between houses in a haphazard manner. Bunches of ugly cable dangling from junction boxes placed between trees. Telephone wires running from the pole to the house.
Ugly cell phone towers marring the city skyline – why don’t we see them abroad ? This is because pains are taken to ensure that they are well concealed and inconspicuous. Civil work is another case in point. If an old building needs to be retrofitted, it is done in the most ghastly manner. External plumbing with pipes sticking out of the exterior. If you want to drill outlets for AC’s – usually someone just hammers out a hole in the wall and pushes a pipe through it. What the fuck. Public gardens have wild grass growing everywhere. Mow the lawn damn it !
None of our public spaces have simple things such as flower beds or just a patch of grass. These are just small things that go a long way.

Shitennoj honbo garden06s3200.jpg
More Zen Gardens Please ! (Image courtesy : Wikipedia)

What is the problem ? Is it laziness or is it a deeper cultural thing ? I would really argue that it is more of a mindset problem. The Japanese for example have a famously strong sense of aesthetics. It is ingrained in their culture and is very much a part of their daily life. I remember reading somewhere that at the beginning of the century, potential Japanese civil servants had to write an essay on beauty as part of their selection critiera. No doubt, India has a rich tradition of the arts – we have some of the greatest monuments, glorious sculptures, handicrafts and art forms, but this I think has remained largely silo-ed. The general public today has no time for them and does not care for them.

I think this is a worrying trend. The lack of understanding or appreciation of aesthetics will reflect poorly elsewhere. In our buildings, in the things we produce and yes even in the software we write. How can this be remedied ? Education as always is the answer. More focus on the arts and exposure to good design in professional courses should at least plant the right ideas. Point in case, nobody demands more NID‘s, but there is a strong demand for IIT‘s. It’s time we combine the two.

Food Madness USA – Spring 2015 !

I spent some time in the US recently, mostly in the Bay Area. The food scene is incredibly diverse and I had a lot of fun eating out in a bunch of different places.  This is what a months worth of eating out looks like :

  • Infinite Thai Eatery: The Thai food is a little different from the Thai restaurants in India. I guess they use fish stock in cooking the curry, so I was put off by the smell a little. I remember that the Green Curry was pretty good and the portions are generous.
  • Fenton’s Creamery: Ah, glorious Fenton’s. This place has been around for years, is an Oakland legend and is always really busy with queues. They are known for their desserts, especially the sundaes which are crazy in terms of toppings and combinations and are ginormous. Three of us had to fight a long and hard battle to finish a single sundae ! The stand-alone ice-creams are fresh and taste good, but the sundaes are the clinchers really.
  • Barney’s: Again in Oakland. This is a decent burger place. The burger’s are pretty innovative in terms of combinations. However, things are on the pricier side.
  • Baja Taqueira: This was the first Mexican place I tried during my trip. I ate a chicken taco, it was well-made and the portion size was good. The salsa was really good. It’s a fairly busy, self-serve place to grab to something quick if you fancy Mexican in Oakland.
  • Lo Coco’s: This is a slightly fancy Italian place. The place is fairly small, so you end up feeling a little cramped. One thing that stood out about the food was that it tasted extremely fresh. We ate a lasagna which was pretty good (awesome tomato sauce!). Also, these guys bake their own in house speciality bread, I forget what it’s called, but it’s served in chunky loaves with a crunchy exterior. First time I ate bread that was fresh out of the oven and so good! Would go there again just for the bread.
  • Little Shin Shin: Chinese restaurant. They have a lunch combo which is value for money. Rice, main-order, soup and starter. However, the Chinese food in the US tastes a little different from “Indian Chinese” food. The Indian variety I think deep-fries stuff, but the US version only sticks to stir-fry ? I don’t really know, but the Indian variety is much better. Anyway, the food here is strictly average and the decor looks straight from the 90’s. The nice thing in this place is they serve complimentary fresh orange wedges for dessert, which is probably the best part of the meal.
  • Lush Gelato: This is sort of a gourmet gelato place, with the place claiming to make everything from scratch using local ingredients etc. The set of flavours is limited, although some are unique. However, the taste is average and probably not worth the price. Nothing in there that would drag me there again.
  • Cato’s Ale House: This place has a huge selection of beers on tap. When I was there, they had a trivia night going on and the place was really lively. The food however was strictly average and the pricing a little on the higher side for a neighbourhood kind of place. But, great place to hang out and catch a few beers especially if with a large(ish) group.
Piedmont Ave, Oakland - Restaurant Alley !
Piedmont Ave, Oakland – Scene of the action !
  • Burma Superstar: This is the best restaurant in Oakland period. I never knew Burmese food was so fucking good. It seems to be this crazy combination of Indian and Thai cusines. All the reviews recommend the Tea Seaf Salad and why not ? This is actually called Lahpet and it’s the Burmese national delicacy. The salad is served with all the ingredients laid out separately in a plate. If I remember correctly, they were fermented tea leaves, lettuce, roasted crunchy garlic, roasted peantus, some other crunchy seeds, sesame and something else, tomatoes and lemon. The server then tosses together everything on the spot. The result is a brilliant mix of flavours and textures. The rest of the dishes were very good too, I had something called the Samosa Soup – samosa’s in a Thai’ish curry. The restaurant’s always busy and seatings a bit cramped, but killer food and the standout tea leaf salad.
  • Zachary’s: Zacharys are known for their Chicago style deep dish pizza. I’ve always been a fan of the “deeper” style of pizza – the thin crust pizza just seem like a roti with some cheese on top. So I was really looking forward to eating here and Zachary’s does not disappoint. The pizzas are really deep – almost like a pie, with tons of fresh tomato sauce and mozzarella. Given this, the pizza is not suprisingly heavy. The two of us ordered the smallest pizza, but still ended up not being able to finish it. (The leftover pizza, tasted really great the next day too). Highly recommend.

    Zacharys deep dish goodness
    Zacharys deep dish goodness
  • Forge Pizzeria: Impressive location in Jack London square in the pier. However, I really didnt like the pizza too much. The pizzas are thin crust style & the veggie pizza we had was quite average. The toppings didnt have any flavour. However, the fried cheese curd starter was something unique and really good. Dessert selection was very ordinary. A mixed kind of place with a great setting by the water.
  • Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen: This is a US Southern Style of cooking restaurant. I ordered a fried chicken dish with sweet potato mash. However the potato had an overwhelming amount of ginger, I really hate ginger, so while the mash put me off, but the chicken was good. My wife however ordered the veggie gumbo which was awesome.
  • Jupiter: This is a Berkeley classic and very popular student hangout, since its close to UCB. Anyway, great pizza, great beer – cant go wrong with that combo. Nice open air outdoor seating with heaters for chilly nights, Jupiter is a great place.
  • Venus: Was here for a Sunday brunch. They had an interesting range of egg based dishes on the menu with varieties of bread to choose from. I think I had an omelette based dish, which was good. Overall, decent brunch place but nothing outstanding.
  • Comal: This is a slightly upscale Mexican restaurant with some Mexican food that cant really be found in the Taco Bell’s et al. I had something called Chile Relleno. Basically a Mexican chilly stuffed with cheese, fried and served in a gravy. Really really good. They had an extensive list of cocktails. Lots of them were Tequila based, but they also had cocktails that were made from Mezcal. I had never heard of Mezcal before, it comes to a difference in what kind of Agave cactus is used in the production – Tequila is a specific kind of Mezcal. Anyway, I tried a Mezcal cocktail, it was really potent and gave me a good buzz and improved my appetite. Anyway Comal is a great place to celebrate occasions.
  • Great China: Gigantic Chinese restaurant in Berkeley. Standard American chinese fare. They have a good varieties of locally brewed beer – I remembered trying a chocolate ale, which was quite good.
  • El Burro Picante: A nondescript Mexican fast food place. The system is you go upto the counter and make your own dish by choosing a variety of toppings. All the standard burrito, taco with a variety of meat and veggie options. The portions are generous, the taste is great and prices are great on the wallet. Highly recommended.
  • Cafe Colucci: This is an Ethiopian restaurant. It has an Italian name, possibly because Ethiopia was an Italian colony for some time, but the restaurant never explains the origins of the name. I had never tried Ethiopian food, but had heard a lot about of it. The menu was large with a billion items on it, however we tried a vegetarian platter kind of thing. The platter comes a variety of gravy dishes, plenty of them were lentil based – couple of them tasted like Indian Daal. The curries are eaten with something called Injera which is like a Ethiopian set dosa. It’s fermented so had a strong sour taste which I really didnt like. The spice used in the curries is something called Berber – a strong red chilli based spice mix. This is actually quite spicy. Well sour and spicy, both things that dont agree with me, so my experience with Ethiopian wasnt off to a good start, but I want to have another go, simply because the cuisine is so diverse and there were simply so many other things to try !
  • Tartine Bakery: This is a bakery that has acquired a reputation for being one of San Francisco‚Äôs best bakeries. We went there on a Saturday and the line was around the fucking block. Groan. Anyway, stood in the line for a good 20 minutes and got in. We actually went there around brunch time and ordered a bunch of things that are supposed to be good. The Banana Cream Tart, something called the Morning Bun, some Tart and a couple of other things as well. It wasn‚Äôt really great – I liked the Banana Cream Tart, the others were just average. Really not worth the lines or navigating your way through the crowds for.
  • Pearl’s Burgers: This is a small, hole-in-the-wall kind of place but has acquired a great reputation as a super burger place. Was there on a late night and was really really hungry, so just wanted to go and smash some burgers and fries. The burgers come with different toppings, fillings etc. – I ordered a Chicken burger in Mediterranean style. The burger was enormous and wouldn‚Äôt fit in a single bite, so the fillings kept falling out. The chicken patty however was bland while the fillings were really spicy. The side order of garlic fries was mind-blowing though. Good place to grab something filling when in down town SFO.

Also had some great food during a road trip to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon :

  • Las Vegas: Everything in Vegas is overpriced (at least on the Strip) and caters to the captive tourist audience. We stayed at this place called the Luxor (yeah it’s a freaking pyramid with a Sphinx and everything). Anyway, the buffets in Vegas are supposed to be really popular with every hotel trying to outdo one another with extravagant displays of food. I actually really like buffets, so we tried it. The food was pretty good and the variety was ridiculous. I really liked whatever I sampled though, although I probably ended up tasting only a quarter of the dishes. The other restaurants are costly and mediocre.
  • Stopped at this little diner called Little City Grille in Boulder City, Nevada. This is situated off the highway when driving from Vegas to Hoover Dam. What a find, one of the best breakfasts I’ve had ever. Ordered a cheese omelette which came with breakfast potatoes, sour cream and toasted sour dough bread. Mindbogglingly good. My wife ordered French toast with maple syrup. Thick slices of toast with crispy edges with gooey Maple syrup. Heavenly stuff, we were so full, that we skipped lunch and were able to power our way through dinner.
  • While visiting the Grand Canyon, we stayed in a little town called Williams in Arizona. Williams appears to be running on the tourist economy, considering its proximity to the Grand Canyon as well as situated on the Historic Route 66. Williams therefore a large no. of restaurants for a such a small town. The Pine Country Restaurant really stood out. It’s an American style diner. I ordered something which was like a chicken schnitzel and was really good. However, this place is really famous for its Pies. Tried something called the Cherry Cream Cheese pie – mouthgasmic !
  • While on the way to Yosemite, we stopped at this little town called Oakhurst and stopped at this place called the Southgate Brewing Co. for lunch. Lunch was average, but I tried a root beer that was flavoured with Sarsaparilla – really unique taste. I later learned that the computer gaming company – Sierra started out in Oakhurst. I spent hours playing King’s Quest as a kid, so was nice to know that I was where it once all started. While on the way back, we stopped at this place called Jantz Bakery, in the small town of Mariposa. Everything looked really good, though I finally settled down on Apple pie. The pie was moist and crunch and the coffee was hot. Great little place !

The Best TV Show of All Time

Without hesitation is the The Sopranos. ¬†The show follows mob boss Tony Soprano’s life through the years as he struggles with managing his mafia organization, his dysfunctional associates and family. Where the show succeeds is that the gangster is not portrayed as some kind of a criminal rock star who bulldozes everybody in his way, but as a person with myriad day to day problems. The best parts are of course the unconventional and often violent solutions. Without a doubt, the standout ¬†is the lead actor, mob boss Tony Soprano played by James Gandolfini (sadly no more). Gandolfini¬†with his huge physical presence is an intimidating personality who figuratively and literally overshadows all other characters. Which is not to say that the others are not good – there is a huge range of standout performances by the rest of them, but in the end The Sopranos has always been about the boss.¬†The show¬†definitely is more popular with men than women. ¬†The violence and the blood are probably not the only reasons. I think a huge appeal is that one starts living vicariously through Tony Soprano. Affairs with hot women, using power and violence to browbeat your enemies and generally get your way sounds better than a cubicle 9-5. ¬†The show also has some great tracks that¬†play in the background or when the credits roll. ¬†The all time favourite has to be the title track – “Woke up this Morning” by the band Alabama 3. It’s¬†part of the opening theme of every episode.¬† RIP James Gandolfini – one of the greatest actors of all time.

Shatabdi Travel Experience

Currently, the best way to travel Bangalore/Chennai is via the Shatabdi train.   The other alternatives all lack in some way. Road travel is a pain because of getting in/out of the cities and can get expensive.  Flying is not practical for a distance of ~350 kms.  The Shatabdi beats the bus both in journey time and cost.  Now, while the Shatabdi is good, there is a lot of room for improvement.

  • Make catering optional.¬† Not everybody relishes the “gourmet” food – and the catering charge is close to Rs. 200, so making this optional would be a great move.
  • While the food quality leaves a lot to be desired, the menu planning itself is ridiculous. Why serve messy options such as dal and curry which is difficult to package and is liable to spill on a train ?
  • The forced “entertainment”.¬† This is completely ill-conceived.¬† There are two TV’s that are mounted on one side in the centre of the coach that broadcast welcome messages, random fillers like “candid camera” and cut scenes from movies.¬† The audio is played out loudly through the TV speakers.¬† Why inflict this torture ?¬† Even for those who want to watch, not all the seats offer optimum viewing angles and the audio is too loud for some and not audible to others. Either provide seat mounted screens like aircraft or provide headphone jacks.
  • Reduce journey time. Currently Shatabdi takes 5 hours.¬† Why so long for a journey of 350km’s ?¬† Shatabdi’s are supposed to be a super-fast train (for which the railways levy a surcharge). The journey time must be reduced to atleast four hours.

Shatabdi is supposed to be the premier passenger experience on Indian Railways.  Hopefully it improves.



Spaced Out In Bangalore

Ok, Bangalore’s population is close to ten million now and the city is bursting at its seams. There is a huge space crisis in Bangalore, I am not talking about realty, property etc, ¬†but about living space. ¬†There is no escape to be found from the maddening crowds. ¬†Parks, restaurants, markets, malls – literally every public space is choked with people at all times. ¬†I think to have a sense of space is very essential for general well being. ¬†I am not sure that is appreciated enough. ¬†With the city becoming increasingly claustrophobic, stress levels are bound to rise – traffic jams, parking problems, road rage just to name a few. ¬†Also, this implies that going out to relax and unwind is not a good idea. ¬†With crowds everywhere, one will only end up getting more stressed. ¬†Restaurants where an average meal for two would be upwards of Rs. 2000 are packed to the brim !

Would you want to shop here ?

The importance of living space was recognized pretty early on, Lebensraum was an ideology introduced more than 100 years ago, but was perversely misused by the Nazis to justify their crimes.

I know that it is hypcritical to complain about crowds, when one is part of the crowd themselves.  We know the solutions like better urban planning is just an illusion given the state of things in India.  So what are the alternatives ? Moving to the countryside will not work, since there is a lack of basic infrastructure. Moving to other second tier cities, Mysore, Kolhapur and working remotely from there is probably a better idea.


Bangalore’s Garbage Crisis

It’s an absolutely ridiculous problem – one that shouldn’t even exist. But yet it does. Bangalore has a stinking Garbage problem. There are all kinds of solutions proposed – ranging from an overkill solution of gps monitored truck with camera , to a more reasonable intention of inculcating citizens with better habits. But, the fundamental problem is that the concept of dustbins do not exist in the city.¬† The BBMP in all its wisdom has officially made Bangalore a dustbin free city, hoping that everyone will use the door to door garbage collection system. This is a seriously WTF policy. If you do not have dustbins, you will have a garbage problem. The current solution involves a worker with a pushcart collecting trash from door to door. The collected trash is then transferred to a three wheeler. It then goes from a three wheeler into a truck and then is finally unloaded into a landfill. The solution is unworkable from so many angles:

  • What if the worker doesn’t turn up on certain days ?¬† (People do take vacations, fall sick)
  • What if they don’t turn up at the same time everyday ?
  • What if that time is not convenient for everyone ?
  • What if the kind of trash you have does not fit into a push cart ? e.g. A mattress or garden waste ?

So there is a very real requirement of having a place to dump garbage. Since, this is not there trash piles up in road corners and other miscellaneous spots.

Trash on road side

A simple google search, presents a truly horrifying sense of the problem.  So obviously keeping the city free of dustbins is a failed idea, but the BBMP refuses to change.

Other negative aspects :
– Huge amount of manpower turning up in every street of the city, every day of the year without fail. This is obviously impractical.
– Treating sanitary workers in an inhuman way by making them manually transfer garbage from push cart to three wheeler to truck. This is a backbreaking hell of a job that has to be done every day.

With huge trashcans at every street corner, you can have trucks that come once in a couple of days and lift the garbage without any human intervention at all. This solves all existing problems mentioned above. No one is dependent on someone to pick up garbage, an ubiquitous drop off place for trash now exists, nobody has to manually lift trash and a massive reduction in manpower can be achieved.

Surely, this is not difficult to implement. Chennai seems to have done it successfully and it definitely is cleaner than Bangalore – no trash in street corners or in electric transformer boxes.

Chennai Garbage Bin – A better solution

Anyway, the (dim) light at the end of the tunnel is that BBMP is supposedly realizing that they need to provide dustbins after all. Here’s hoping for the best.

Firefox Awesome Bar is Awesome

One of the main reasons I continue to use Firefox over Chromium/Chrome is the address bar.¬† Unlike Chromium, Firefox does not use tie in the address bar with Google search, but instead uses the browsing history and the bookmarks to suggest URL’s.¬† The address suggestions are made using a combination of frequency of access of URL’s as well as how recent they were accessed. Also, the algorithm gets better with usage.¬† For example, I had recently read an article about something called the Zing JVM by a company called Azul, but when I wanted to refer to it later,¬† I could not recall the word “Zing” or “Azul”, so I started typing in “Java Performance” in the address bar and Firefox started pulling out the relevant URL’s and I could soon find what I wanted.

Firefox Awesome Bar
Firefox Awesome Bar

Combining search engine suggestions for URL auto completion as in Chrome, is confusing and does not do a great job of leveraging your own browsing patterns and history. Search suggestions are of course incredibly useful too and therefore separating them out allows the best of both approach.¬† The Mozilla support site has a very good article on using the address bar. ¬† This feature however works well if there is a rich browsing history present.¬† There may be a need to ahem, not include certain URL’s in the search suggestions.¬† The straightforward way is to not allow these URLs to be recorded in the browsing history in the first place – this can be done using Private Browsing.