Friday, March 13, 2009

COLUMN: Breitbach's Revisited

With the economy down the toilet, winter never ending, and women of the world back to their usual routine of not giving me the time of day, I needed some good news. This week, I got it. It's official: the smell of ham steaks will soon again be wafting down from the bluffs of Balltown. The phoenix is once again rising from the ashes -- Breitbach's is coming back.

For the uninitiated, Breitbach's Country Dining is an unassuming eatery just upriver from Dubuque on a road that only recently discovered pavement. It also just happens to be Iowa's Oldest Bar & Restaurant, as the proud tagline of its sign proclaims.

The road to Balltown is half the fun of visiting the place. Sure, you could take U.S. 61 and zip up to Dubuque in no time flat -- but you'd be doing a disservice to your eyes The far superior ride is to follow the Great River Road north. Just aim for the smell of homemade mashed potatoes and gravy, and you'll soon be climbing the jaw-droppingly gorgeous river bluffs towards Balltown.

Dating back to the 1850's and under control of the Breitbach clan for six generations, it's not just the scenic views and storied history that make the restaurant such a popular attraction -- it's the FOOD. Featuring a menu of down-home Midwest cuisine rivalled only by your grandmother's kitchen, one visit to Breitbach's legendary buffet and you'll understand why some of their clientele drive for HOURS to walk through those doors.

That's why many Iowans had a less-than-merry Christmas back in 2007. In the wee hours of that fateful Christmas Eve, the tiny community of Balltown was rocked by an explosion from the basement of their cherished restaurant. By the time the sun rose, Breitbach's was little more than a smouldering pile of rubble. So extreme was the damage that investigators couldn't put their finger on an exact cause.

Faced with the difficult decision of rebuilding, current owners Mike & Cindy Breitbach leaned towards closure - until the community rallied together. Volunteers poured in from around the state. Amish carpenters built the framework. Fans of the restaurant from states away packed trucks and drove out to lend a hand.

After just 69 days of construction, the new Breitbach's opened to much fanfare last June. The new building was modernized and upscale while classic and gothic. It just wasn't fireproof.

Like a bad joke, Mike's phone started ringing at 3 a.m. on October 24th. He arrived to the scene just in time to see the roof collapse in flames. Once again, a mysterious fire had claimed Breitbach's. An investigation is still pending.

If the FIRST decision was a tough one to make, you might think that the second would have been even harder. But you don't know Balltown.

"This wasn't a family decision," explains Breitbach. "It was a community decision. We had to re-open."

The sentiment is echoed by Balltown resident and construction volunteer Ron Schmidt. "When the second fire hit, it wasn't just disbelief, it was anger. And the best way to work off that anger is to rebuild."

The family hopes to break ground on the new restaurant in mid-March. "With the good Lord willing," Breitbach says, "Cindy's pies will be baking by mid-June."

In the interim, a makeshift tent office on the construction site dubbed The Gathering Place fills every morning with Balltown residents eager for a cup of joe and a piece of the progress planning. A local architect has offered his services pro bono. More than 40 volunteers have already signed up.

"Breitbach's is at the center of Balltown," explains Schmidt. "You can't hear one without the other. Our town would be dead without it."

"America's lost its sense of community and its touch," says Breitbach. "But I'm here to tell you that we haven't lost the touch. Not here in Balltown, Iowa, population: 49."

The world notices the touch. The restaurant may be temporarily M.I.A., but that didn't stop Breitbach's from winning the prestigious 2009 America's Classic award from the James Beard Foundation. This May, Mike and Cindy will take their first ever plane ride to accept the award in the confines of New York's Lincoln Center.

Here's hoping they hurry home. There's ham steaks a-wastin'.


Sometimes happy endings can be a let-down.

A couple of weeks ago, something really bad was set to happen to one of the nicest people in the Quad Cities, and I was primed to rally to his aide. I was good and miffed and ready for action. Of course, given the fact the fact that I'm pretty much useless and lazy, my only action was going to be a newspaper column. But it was gonna be a GOOD column. Vitriolic words of rage and empowerment were bracing themselves to come flying from my keyboard. I might have even written a sentence or two in ALL CAPS (my angry font.)

But then it all worked itself out, dang my luck. Righteousness and a happy ending prevailed without me getting to bust out even a single inflammatory adjective. What a drag. Still, though, it's a story worth mentioning, even though I don't get to rage against any machines.

I first met Tien Chang at the club I DJ at on the weekends. Now, if you're a patron of the District, you know that there's sort of a standardized model of behavior to follow, right? Girls flock to the dancefloor to shake their assets, and guys try their best not to look like total nimrods while disguising their total and complete lack of rhythm. It's sort of like watching a nature show on Animal Planet, just with fewer caribou deaths.

One day I was up in the booth doing my best to provide a soundtrack to the human mating season when in walked an altogether different herd. A group of people who weren't there to show off, who weren't there to be fashionistas, who weren't there for any real reason at all. A group of gangly guys and girls who didn't care what people thought of them and didn't care how they looked on the dancefloor. A group of people clearly in the club to have a good time, listen to some fun music, and shake their booties in whatever haphazard manner they wanted. A group clearly after the heart of this card-carrying nerd.

And at the center of them all? A short, unassuming Asian kid who bounced up to the booth and insisted in broken English that I play some Michael Jackson in a hurry. And when I put that record on, he took to the floor and danced just like Michael -- were Michael suffering from some sort of tragic neuro-muscular seizure. Make fun of his dancing all you want, but Tien Chang's good heart and happy-go-lucky attitude made him an overnight institution in the District. Even on my worst night of DJ'ing, if I saw Tien and his gang walk through my door, I knew I'd be entertained.

Over the past few years, I became friends with Tien and his buddies -- so that's why I was stopped cold the other day when I saw an e-mail that Tien was being forced out of the country and back to his native Taiwan.

It turns out that Tien's student visa had come to an end. Having come to America at age 16 on what he calls "sheer impulse and a desire to learn," Tien's American dream landed him in Fort Dodge, IA. It was there at Iowa Central Community College that he discovered his passion for art.

When his mom came to visit, they took a roadtrip to Chicago, which brought him through the Quad Cities. Tien explains, "I just thought to myself, 'This place looks nice. Why not move here?' So I did." Coming from Joe Schmo, an impulsive decision like that seems reckless. Tien makes it all seem strangely normal.

After stints at Black Hawk and Scott Community Colleges, Tien ignored his father's advice to become a chiropractor ("NOT my scene,") and instead took a transfer student scholarship to St. Ambrose University. That led to an art scholarship and a degree this past December.

In the meantime, he became infused with the arts and culture scene of the Quad Cities. Tien's work has hung at the Leger Fine Arts Gallery and can currently be seen in several local exhibits. An avid rollerblader, his work with the Iowa Connection has helped unite blading enthusiasts across the state. On the weekends, you can find him working the door and keeping the peace at Icons in the District. And, of course, he's still a wicked force on any dance floor.

But before Tien could get his diploma and certification to apply to grad schools, his student visa expired and he found himself on the verge of being kicked out of the country. Too late to achieve a work visa, Tien posted plans for a moving sale to his shocked friends.

Overnight, a "Save Tien Chang" group was started on Facebook. Letter-writing campaigns by his friends went to every politician with an open ear (and merited a warm response and optimistic reply from Sen. Mike Jacobs.) But before any real action got underway, an advisor at St. Ambrose realized that Tien qualified for a temporary work visa. She rushed a request in and his visa arrived mere days before the plane for Taiwan lifted off. I'm happy to say he wasn't on it. He now has one year to sort out graduate school and wade through the red tape for a proper work visa.

"My dream is to become a naturalized citizen," Tien told me tonight over a pint at Bent River. "My life is here now. The art world in Taiwan is very commercialized. They don't appreciate the importance of showing personality through artistic expression."

Often we hear stories of lucky immigrants afforded the right to start over in the great American melting pot. In this case, though, it's WE who are the lucky ones, because the Quad Cities would be a shade or two dimmer without Tien around to shake things up. He's not a special case, he doesn't have a tragic human interest story that'll make you cry. He's just one of the good guys, and to his friends, he's as much a part of the Quad Cities as John Deere or Harris Pizza.

Here's hoping you can stick around for a long time to come, friend. Tien Chang: Talented artist, good friend, awful dancer -- Quad Citian.

COLUMN: Valentine's Day

Once upon a time, there was a boy. An optimistic boy with plans in his head and dreams in his heart. Nothing ever went wrong for this boy. Everything he did went according to plan. Then the boy woke up and realized in a flash that (a) everyone sucks, and (b) the world conspires against him on an almost daily basis.

Let's just leap straight into it: I'm dating someone. I'd use the word "girlfriend," but that's a scary word that brings to mind couple-dom, commitment, and the dreaded public Changing of the Facebook Relationship Status. I don't wanna scare her off quite yet, so I'll refrain from dropping terminology like that willy-nilly. Suffice to say, though, she is a girl, she is my friend, and she makes my insides go gooey. Make of that what you will.

Which brings us to Valentine's Day. This is a scary 24 hours for a fledgling relationship, and it needs to be approached with some care. You want the day to be special, but not in an I'm-picking-out-china-patterns-and-have-already-named-our-firstborn kinda way. Romantic but not obsessive, smitten but not smothering, right?

One of the things that makes us compatible is that we're both horribly busy. She works all the time, I work all the time, and we try to squeeze in the occasional rendezvous when schedules allow. It was five days before-hand when we realized we both had Valentine's evening free. Huzzah!

Or maybe non-huzzah. Ever tried booking Valentine's reservations on 5 days notice? Not happening. One place even laughed at me when I called. Reality check - I had no choice. Unless I wanted us to have a romantic liaison over a pair of Big Macs, I was going to have to (gulp) MAKE dinner.

Just one problem: my culinary skills pretty much start and stop with adding Helper to hamburger. Worse yet, I was dealing with a vegetarian. The only thing I'm good at doing with vegetables is covering them with enough ranch dip to mask the taste.

So I turned to one of Rock Island's greatest gems: D'allesandro Pasta To Go. With one visit, they hooked me right up. Creamed asparagus lasagne, a loaf of garlic bread, and a brick of the most decadent tiramisu imaginable. Just pop it in the oven and you're good to go.

On Saturday, I woke up a lean, mean Valentine machine. Except for the nasty head cold that arrived unannounced. Phlegm or no phlegm, though, I was unstoppable. I got my hair cut, bought some nice flowers, tidied up the apartment, and picked out some mood music. As I slid the lasagne into the oven, I congratulated myself on a job well done and went to the fridge to open a cold-- nothing. Crud! I forgot to buy ANYTHING to drink!

Since the lush grey hues of Rock Island tap water don't exactly spell romance, I threw on my coat and drove down to a gas station for beverages. All was good until I got back to the car -- to find it completely dead. My starter was completely fried and I was 30 minutes away from a roaring lasagne fire in my oven. I grabbed my phone to call anyone nearby for a lift... or I WOULD have, had I not left my phone on the charger at home.

"My car just broke down in your lot," I raced in to tell the clerk. "I need to use your phone."

"Is it local?" she shot back with an eyeroll of hatred. Curses! She saw through my plan. Yes, my car just died, I'm trapped in your gas station, my apartment's minutes away from becoming cat flambe, and clearly I was going to use your phone to call 1-900-HOT-DATE at $2.99 a minute.

Begrudgingly she handed me the phone. I dialed a couple of friends and got their machines. I had no other choice. I took a deep breath, readied myself -- and took off running. Bounding through one of the worst neighborhoods in Rock Island like a tubby Forrest Gump, and in dress shoes no less. Twenty minutes later, I was an aching, sweaty, snotty mess, but I was home - and with ten minutes to spare.

I had just managed to clean myself up and stop wheezing when she showed up. "Voila!" I said, opening the open door and pulling out lasagne goodness. Oh, well, yes, and also raking my arm across the top of the oven and screaming like a banshee. Now, my nose was plugged solid, but even I could smell my own charred flesh. Smooooth, Shane. Nothing says masculine romantic hero quite like shrieking and running into the bathroom for the Bactine.

Spontaneous jogging and third-degree burns aside, though, dinner went well. While I was too sniffly and cold-ridden to actually taste any of the food, I'm pretty sure it was exceptional. And afterwards, I treated her to the most romantic of all evening activities: sitting around a gas station for three hours waiting for a delinquent tow truck to arrive.

Oh, and then leaving her at the gas station to wait on my behalf because I had to get to my weekend DJ gig. And then begging her to run to my apartment and get me some cold medicine I'd left behind. Oh, and then getting to the DJ gig and promptly breaking my incredibly expensive headphones, which led her to run out and get me some superglue. And yes, as you'd expect, the headphones remain broken but I somehow managed to superglue my fingers together in no time at all. And yes, she ran and got nail polish remover to help me get it off.

So Don Juan I am not. Amazingly, though, she's still hanging around. I may have very well mucked up the storyline good and plenty, but happily the ending's still up for grabs. Cross your fingers for me.

COLUMN: Economy Zombies

It's not the best time in the world to be a humor columnist.

I just started getting the hang of how this whole Sunday newspaper thing works, too. I mean, obviously my column's the most important thing that runs all week. Duh - why else would you have bought this issue, I know, right? And after my column gets laid out, then there's a whole bunch of advertisers who need the awesome promotional surge that comes with marketing their product in the same issue as my column. All this makes sense to me so far.

But then after they lay out my column and all the ads, there's some extra space left over that I guess we just fill up with whatever gobbledygook's around. Apparantly we call this gobbledygook "news." Personally, I can't stand the stuff.

Sometimes, though, it's hard picking up a Sunday paper and turning to my column without being distracted by all those other words. The other day I actually read some. And you know what I found out? This may come as a shock to you all, but apparantly our economy isn't doing so well. In fact, it's kinda, well, sucky. And apparantly "recession" does NOT mean extra time for all of us to play on the monkey bars.

Really, though, how much more depressing can our media be right now? We're doing our job and reporting the news. But the news these days is so bleak that reporting on it might just be compounding the problem. You can't stop into a gas station for a morning coffee without seeing headlines blaring layoffs and closures. That does NOT make me want to invest in an Egg McMuffin. That makes me want to bury my McMuffin McMoney in a tin can in my back yard.

And our new President -- the guy I voted for on a platform of "hope not fear" -- sure seems intent on scaring the bejeepers out of all of us. I was really bad at economics in high school, so I'm no stimulus plan expert. I don't quite follow how using my tax dollars to hire pothole workers on the interstate is supposed to trickle down into MY job security, but I plead ignorance on this one and leave it in the hands of the money-crunchers.

In the meantime, all we can do is wade through the bad news and keep looking for the silver lining. That's where I come in. People, I am proud to announce that, by using my highly-tuned investigative reporting skills, I have found an upside to the recession.

Every year, our papers publish a big three-part supplement in February, one of which should be in your paper today. It's a look at the people, places, and events that have helped shape our lives over the past twelve months. This year's theme is "QC Spirit: Growth During Challenging Times." It's a great read about area folks and businesses making strides in culture, environment, and growth even when the economy's down the tubes.

One of my jobs here at the paper is to call around to area businesses and make sure their advertising needs are met. And one of the opportunities we're offering in this year's supplement is something called the "QC Honor Roll." It's a chance for businesses to show off the number of years they've been around -- and in THIS economy, survival alone merits a boast or two.

Well, among the businesses I was tasked with calling this year were a number of area funeral homes. I've been blessed to not have to suffer through much death in my life, but that means I've never quite gotten the hang of dealing with the polite-and-friendly-yet-somber-and-respectful tone of most funeral directors. I approached these calls with some trepidation.

It turns out I had little to worry about. Most of them were really nice folk and quite a few were eager to participate on the Honor Roll. However, I was surprised to hear the same negative response from a few funeral homes: "We'd love to, but with this economy, business has slowed down."

There you have it. Concrete proof of the upside of today's fiscal crisis. Clearly, in times of recession, it appears that fewer people are dying.

The only logical assumption to make is that the Grim Reaper himself has been laid off, or at least had his hours seriously cut by upper death management. So that's good news for the ill and infirm, I reckon. Plus it opens the doors for scab laborers to pick up some of Death's wages -- and if the income from pothole repair is supposed to trickle my way, surely then so must the paychecks of death's minions.

Or maybe the struggling pocketbooks of America means fewer people paying for greasy fast food every day. My grandmother used to shun cholesterol in favor of salads that I'm pretty sure were composed exclusively of random weeds plucked from her yard. Say what you will about her culinary skills, but she ended up saving serious money AND she lived into her triple digits.

Sadly, though, I haven't really noticed a drop in our paper's obituary section. Hmm, yet the funeral homes say they're struggling for business? My deductive reporter's background tells me this can only mean one thing:

ZOMBIES. Armies of the undead. And we all know nothing spoils a good recession quite like a plague of zombies. The military would have to spend on weapons, science would have to spend on a cure, townsfolk would have to spend on garlic cloves -- or is that vampires? Still, if it all trickles down, I figure all we need is one good Dawn o' the Dead for our economy to fully recover.

And now that THAT'S settled, you'll have to excuse me. I'm headed out back to dig up some McMuffin McMoney.