Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Real Diner

Paul's Diner - 2 stars
6 Carlisle Rd.
Westford, MA

On Wednesday I was in Northeastern Massachusetts, driving to New Hampshire to visit a client, when I pulled off of 495 to get gas. After getting gas, I was hungry, and I had some extra time, so I started looking for one of the usual standbys to grab breakfast: maybe Panera, or Starbucks, or some Mexican chain that served breakfast burritos. Instead, I ended up at Paul's Diner.

Paul's is the kind of diner you can't find in California, or in any gentrified neighborhood, or in the strip malls that litter the country - no 50's nostalgia memorabilia, no jukeboxes, no guacamole, no inflated prices, and only open for breakfast and lunch. (It is not the other type of classic diner - the Greek-owned, 24-hour kind with a twenty-page menu.) I had an egg-and-cheese sandwich on an English muffin and home fries for less than $4, and it was as good as they come. The home fries were chunks of red new potatoes, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside like I can never manage to make them at home. And they even had free wireless Internet access. I'm already looking forward to having breakfast there next week when I have to go back to New Hampshire.

In between, though, I have to go to Paris for five days, and I'll have little time for anything except work. On the way to the airport I picked up a hitchhiker, trying to follow through on my advice to help other people when you are traveling. He was in his 30s, friendly, fit, clean-cut ... and homeless. He used to have a family and a job (as a graphic designer) in Maine, but then he split up with his wife, and she moved to Massachusetts with the kids. So he gave up everything and moved to Massachusetts, without a job or a place to live, so he could see his kids. He lived in his car for a while, but then it got too cold and his car broke down anyway, so now he's living in a shelter and trying to find a job, but no one is hiring graphic designers. But he does get to see his kids often. "It's humbling," he said about leaving his professional life to become a homeless person. But for him, he didn't have a choice; it was that important to be close to his children.

I couldn't avoid asking myself if I would make the same choice. And to tell the truth, I don't think I can say I would. I like to think I would do anything to be close to my daughter, but the fact is that I already spend about 30-40% of my time away from home. In theory I could get a job that doesn't require travel, but the truth is that I haven't. And this year I'm even traveling more than I have since 2004. I hope Willow will forgive me.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

One Small Country

Waffle House - 2 stars
All over the South

None of my friends understand my affection for Waffle House. After all, I am a California foodie at heart who learned how to cook as a graduate student (in the humanities, no less) in Berkeley - and a vegetarian.

If I wanted, I could explain my relationship to Waffle House with a sentimental story. The first time I ever ate at Waffle House was on Thursday, September 13, 2001. I had been trapped in New Orleans with maybe a hundred people from my company, because we were having a user group meeting there. On Wednesday night, a few of us went to the New Orleans airport to see if we could get a flight to San Francisco, because some airports were opening, but New Orleans didn't. So three of us - Sundar, Marcus, and I - rented a big old American car and drove through the night to Dallas, which we expected was more likely to have flights in the morning. We ate breakfast at Waffle House somewhere near the airport around 6 am the next morning. And we got on a United flight home that morning, which made us among the first people to start flying again. (I was also in the air at midnight on New Year's Eve, 2000, but that's another story.)

But the real reason is I just like the food. The summer when I was coming to Louisville every week I would eat there at least once each trip. This morning I had the usual - a double order of hash browns with onions and jalapeno peppers, and two eggs over hard (sometimes I have an egg and cheese sandwich instead of just the eggs). The hash browns are nice and crispy, with the sweetness of the onions and the spice of the peppers, and the eggs are better than you'll find at far more expensive places like Denny's or the Courtyard Marriott lobby (my other choice). The portions are reasonable (not gargantuan), and the prices are so cheap you can order everything you want.

I even woke up half an hour earlier than necessary just so I could go to Waffle House. Those who know me will realize there are few greater recommendations I can give than that.

Now, the people who work at Waffle House are invariably friendly and helpful, but to tell the truth I never thought I had a lot in common with them. Call me provincial, call me a snob, whatever. But I am a liberal Korean-American who studied French intellectual history, of all things, and has lived his whole life on the coasts (and in France, of all places) - and an atheist to boot. I could go on.

But this morning the Waffle House staff were talking about Seinfeld and how much they loved it, and they were true aficionados. They not only knew about Soup Nazi (everyone does), but they were talking about Elaine dancing, and the "on the wagon/off the wagon" episode, and the episode when Kramer and the car salesman see how far they can drive without running out of gas. Seinfeld was my favorite TV show of the 1990s (until I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the undoubted greatest TV show of all time), and they loved it every bit as much as I did.

We really are one country, like it or not.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Down Memory Lane

Senor Jalapeno - 1 star
SJC, Terminal C

French Meadow Organic Bakery - 2 stars

I used to fly to San Jose a lot when visiting my office, for cost reasons, but sometime around 2005-2006 it became cheaper to fly in and out of San Francisco, which is closer to the office anyway. This week, though, I bought a ticket at the last minute and it was cheaper to return from San Jose, so this morning I made the drive down 101 through Silicon Valley for the first time in what seemed like years.

The drive was a bit like looking at the striated walls of the Grand Canyon or anyplace else that you can see the layers of geological history, because for me it is a reverse-chronological tour through my career in the technology industry. I pulled out of our gleaming, glass complex in San Mateo just north of Highway 92, which used to belong to Siebel. Heading south on 101, I first passed the dirty-white Bay View building in the low(er)-rent part of San Mateo, where my company spent the last five years, growing from less than half of one floor (developers spread across the open space in the middle, sales and marketing sharing offices along the wall, Marcus's print of a New Yorker cartoon entitled "Making the big sale," showing a salesman in a suit sitting down with the customer, a dog, for a meal of dog food) to filling three floors and bursting at the seams. 10 minutes later there was the Redwood City apartment building where John R. and I shared a dingy two-bedroom apartment with his poker-playing college friend for three years during our frequent trips to California. Then unincorporated Menlo Park, on the Bay side of 101, where we founded the company in 2001 in the extra space of Ken's friend's (now-folded) startup, going out to eat in the taquerias where the jukebox only played Mexican pop music; real tacos, just beef on corn tortillas with nothing more than onions, hot sauce, and lime juice remain one of the few things I miss from my meat-eating days.

Continuing south, there is the Shoreline Boulevard exit in Mountain View for Ariba's old headquarters, across the street from Silicon Graphics, where we used to sneak into the cafeteria for lunch. That was where I got my first intoxicating taste of the startup life, although by that time Ariba already had 500 employees and more money than it knew what to do with. Then at the south end of Moffett Field the freeway passes right by the new glass towers we moved to in 2001, right when our stock had fallen by 98% and we had to lay off half the company. I filled up the gas tank on Mathilda Avenue in Sunnyvale, just past the Hobee's where I think Marcus and I first tried to convince Ken to start a company with us - arguably one of the most important days in my company's history.

Then just a few miles further south, in Santa Clara, you pass the nondescript, blue-and-beige headquarters of Intel, my first client after I moved from McKinsey's New York office to the San Francisco office back in 1999. The first times that I made that drive down to Intel, arguably the most important company in the history of Silicon Valley (although some might argue for HP or Cisco, or perhaps someday Google), I felt like I was at the center of the world, and the business world was full of possibility. Now when I make that drive, it's the memories that I think about, not the future.

My usual lunch at SJC used to be a tuna sandwich from Noah's, but since I've given up seafood I got a veggie burrito from Senor Jalapeno instead, which was perfectly serviceable and undistinguished, except for the salsa, which was nicely garlicky. On my layover I went to French Meadow, which I have previously rated as my favorite airport restaurant anywhere in the world (although the Wolfgang Puck Cafe in Cincinnati is a close competitor - nothing at all like the Wolfgang Puck in Concourse B of O'Hare, which is absolutely disgusting). This time I had a bowl of Thai Vegetable Curry soup, which didn't seem particularly Thai (or curry, for that matter), but was full of vegetables and was reassuringly spicy in a hot-and-sour sort of way.