Monthly Archives: July 2009

Sweltering Suburbia

When my parents asked Laura and I to stay at their house in Cedar Hills and watch my younger siblings for a few days, we were excited.  Finally, we thought, we could get out of our AC-free house and cool off with modern climate control.  Unfortunately, we’ve been disappointed; my parents home actually gets hotter than ours (in Provo), and if we do choose to turn on the AC it requires massive amounts of energy just to cool it down to the mid 80s. 

Cedar Hills—like so many recently constructed housing developments—is a disaster for many reasons, but probably one of the biggest is the community’s utter disregard for energy use.

One of the biggest problems with Cedar Hills is the design of its neighborhoods.  For the most part, the small community is filled with McMansion style track homes.  Aside from the fact that these homes are ugly and poorly constructed, they’re also spaced just far enough apart to miss out on the (numerous) advantages of being close together.  For example, though they all have pathetically small yards, none of them actually shade each other (and obviously, because they don’t share any walls, heating and cooling from one home doesn’t benefit others).  The flaws in this design are painfully apparent when compared to old communities in southern Europe and the Middle East.  In that part of the world many towns have narrow lanes and closely spaced structures.  This design didn’t arise because the builders hated privacy or wanted quaint towns for future tourists; rather, they knew that closely-spaced buildings shade each other, thereby making them all cooler.  In the centuries before AC this was especially handy, but what’s even more amazing is that many of these buildings still stay cooler than a typical McMansion with its AC running at full blast.  Narrow lanes also stay cooler in the summer (and dryer in the winter) than the moronically twisting streets and superfluous culs-de-sac common in American suburbs.     

Related to the macro-community issues in Cedar Hills, each structure experiences an array of individual problems.  For example, even if something was shading my parents’ home, its floor plan would still make cooling nearly impossible.  The home has three floors and each one is always a drastically different temperature because there is almost no airflow.  This means that to get the ground floor comfortable the basement ends up being cold but the upstairs is still too warm.  If this problem was confined to my parents’ home it wouldn’t be much of an issue.  Instead however, vast numbers of relatively new homes are inefficient energy hogs.  In turn, they cost their owners more money and negatively impact the environment.

The American dream seems to include an almost obsessive drive to own a home.  Unfortunately, this drive has produced communities with long-term energy consumption problems (in addition to simply being eyesores).  Hopefully the contraction of the housing market will force developers to reconsider building cheap, environmentally unsound homes.  

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Commuting/A Big Problem

One of the best things we could do as a country is reduce the time we spend commuting.  Of course this would require people to adjust their priorities, but in the end it would result in more free time, better environmental conditions, and a general increase in the standard of living. 

 

People commute for a lot reasons but one of the most common seems to be home prices.  While the American dream apparently includes homeownership, most people tend to find cheaper homes farther from their places of work.  Right now, for example, I live in Utah and it’s much cheaper to buy a house in West Jordan than it is in downtown Salt Lake City or even Sugar House.  Both Laura and I grew up in Southern California and the situation is even more extreme there.  Either you live in a “rougher” neighborhood in the city, or you live in a suburb and drive into town.  (L.A.’s notorious traffic leads me to believe that everyone in Southern California lives quite a distance from their places of work).

 

Another big reason people commute is schools.  When my family moved to Utah, for example, they chose to live farther from my Dad’s work so that the kids could attend the better school.  I can’t argue with the numbers that say which school districts are better, but I do question just what “better” means.  Obviously if you’re choosing between Glendora (where I grew up) and Compton,“better” probably means fewer gangs and drug problems.  On the other hand, if you’re choosing between Provo and Alpine, “better” apparently means a more homogenous student body.  In any case, many people aren’t choosing between a great school district and a terrible one.  Instead they’re choosing between an okay district and a slightly better one.

 

There are a lot of other reasons that people commute, but in the end I haven’t found any that are particularly compelling.  If you’re buying a house, a smaller, more centrally located home could be just as satisfactory.  For that matter an apartment could also probably work.  The point is that we could shift our values so that they no longer include big houses (that sit empty while we drive around all day).  The same goes for schools; we could choose to attend schools with slightly lower rankings and accept the fact that the degree to which a child succeeds at school mostly hinges on the home environment.  Better yet, we could try to improve the communities and schools closest to where we spend most of our time. 

 

Ultimately, whether people choose to shorten or eliminate their commutes for altruistic reasons or not this problem needs to be addressed.  I suspect that people would be generally happier if they weren’t in their cars so much.  Even if that’s difficult to prove, the environmental impact of commuting is not.  Just because a person rakes in a decent salary doesn’t mean that they should have the right to pollute at will.  (I don’t care what kind of car you drive it still pollutes more than walking or biking.)  Instead, I suggest we invest in our happiness, our future, and the future of our planet and start living closer to where we work. 

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Guru’s Cafe


A few nights ago Laura and I got dinner with some friends at Guru’s.  It had been quite a while since I’d eaten at Guru’s so I was excited to try it out again. 

 

For the sake of experimentation, on this visit I ordered the Pan Seared Salmon Bowl.  It was good.  Not great, but good.  Appropriately, the salmon was the highlight of the dish but unfortunately everything else didn’t quite measure up.  The vegetables, for example, were acceptable, but bland.  I also went with brown rice, which, to my great disappointment, apparently meant white rice that was faintly brown.  Note: the words “brown” and “white,” when describing rice, as supposed to indicate distinct flavors and textures.  Still, I enjoyed my meal.  It wasn’t good enough on its own to bring me back, but if (or when) I find myself at Guru’s again I won’t completely rule out an encore.  

 

This visit reinforced my feeling that if I could only recommend one meal at Guru’s it would be a quesadilla.  Specifically, I’d suggest the vegetarian Santa Cruz Quesadilla.  It’s been a while since I had this particular dish, but it’s still the best thing I’ve ordered at Guru’s.  Much more importantly, it’s one of the best quesadillas I’ve had (and indeed it was tempting to simply order it again on this most recent visit).  Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way; Laura and I noticed that a large plurality of diners around us (including our friends) had also chosen one of the quesadillas.  Though I haven’t tried them all, each one appears to be coming from the same culinary family, which also seems to be where the restaurant excels the most.  Unfortunately none of the rice bowls or pasta dishes that I’ve had shared this distinction, all of them ultimately having been pleasant but bland and forgettable.  (If you’re less hungry try stopping in for an order of sweet potato fries.  This well-known and distinctive side-dish comes with a special house fry sauce and is probably one of the reasons Guru’s is still in business.  They can make an odd combination with some of the dinners, but they’re definitely worth trying.)

 

If Guru’s food isn’t enough to make a repeat customer out of me, the ambiance is.  To be honest, the décor of the restaurant has always bugged me, so I was surprised to find myself liking it so much this time.  In the past I’ve felt like everything was loud and trying just a little too hard to be hip.  I also questioned the tastefulness of the large Gandhi wallpaper in the corner.  (Sure, its called “Guru’s,” which might imply some sort of India connection, but is it really appropriate to use Gandhi’s image to sell burritos?)  This time however, the lighting was much lower, deemphasizing some of the venue’s incongruities.  As an added bonus a jazz band was performing while we ate, which (to my pleasant surprise) radically altered the atmosphere, making it feel far more urban than anywhere else I’ve been lately in Utah County (yes, including Spark).  If none of these changes are wholly original (even in a city like Salt Lake the bar might be terminally higher for a restaurant like Guru’s), they also helped the restaurant stand out in an area dominated by chains and family restaurants (like Brick Oven). 

 

Guru’s is well worth a visit.  The food isn’t the best in the world (or even in Provo), but the experience is unique and unrivaled by other local eateries.  Between the menu and the décor Guru’s has managed to attract both the hip(ster) and mainstream crowds, and (to my surprise) I’m looking forward to my next visit. 

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Filed under Food, Provo, restaurant

Chain Restaurants/Don’t Go There

From time to time on this blog I’ve reviewed local restaurants.  I hope to keep up that trend but right now I’d like to look at the operative word in that first sentence: local. 

 

By and large I believe that, if you have the choice, it’s better to eat at a local restaurant.  There’s a few reasons I believe this.  First, there is the distinct possibility that the food will be better at a local place, and if it’s not it will still probably be unique.  If you want a sandwich, for example, and decide to go to Subway, you know what you’re going to get.  On the other hand, a local sandwich shop has the freedom to experiment with its menu and try new things.  Those experiements may be delicious, but even if they aren’t better than Subway (which by the way isn’t bad), they’ll offer a one-of-a-kind eating experience.  This idea seems to apply across the board; whether its local Italian verses The Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill, or the neighborhood diner verses McDonalds, Carl’s Jr., etc., my experience is that in each case the smarter culinary choice is to avoid the chains.  

 

Besides the potential for better food, local restaurants almost always have a better environment.  I always laugh/cringe when I walk into a Chili’s, Applebees, Red Robin, TGIFridays, take-your-pick-of-generic-Americana; they all look exactly the same (both from location to location, as well as from company to company).  I remember ending up at one of these restaurants on my first visit to New York and wondering why it would be decorated exactly the same there as it was on the West Coast.  How can there be so many restaurants filling the same bland niche?  (Of course, the food at these places isn’t necessarily bad, they just tend to offer so much less in the way of environment than most local places.  Also, the food at these restaurants isn’t particularly memorable.)  Local restaurants, however, often have quirky environments that, if varying in their success at creating a desired ambiance, are usually much more stimulating than the props chosen by corporate headquarters to decorate chain restaurants.  

 

My point here isn’t to argue for the complete elimination of chain restaurants but rather to suggest that when considering where to eat, thinking local should be the first response.  Obviously there will be times when availability, price, or (bafflingly) even taste will lead people to choose chain restaurants.  Also, most chain restaurants probably started out as local businesses and hopefully retain some of the spirit from their earlier days.  Still, local eateries provide an experience that larger chains can only meagerly and unsuccessfully imitate.  What’s more, eating local pumps more money into the community, which of course means more growth, opportunity, and progress locally.

 

Whether or not you believe in the “buy local” movements sweeping across the nation (and the world), eating at local restaurants is a way to have a rewarding culinary experience while supporting people who are probably your neighbors.  I know that the next time I go out, I’ll be walking down the street to find a place instead of driving to the nearest chain.

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Filed under buy local, Food, local, restaurant