Pigskin Pursuit

An eight year odyssey across the backroads of America during the ultimate College Football roadtrip.

Tag: LA

USC vs Notre Dame – Comin’ straight outta Compton…

I’ve been waiting for this game for a decade.

As a lifelong Notre Dame fan, the annual rivalry contest against Southern Cal is easily the biggest date on the calendar.  A historic series dating back to 1926 when the teams used to take week long train journeys to face each other, the Irish enjoy a 44-35 W/L record all time against their most heated adversary.  For over a decade, however, the rivalry has been a lopsided one with the Trojans dominating the series 9-1.  While Notre Dame has shown brief flashes of competitiveness against USC in 2005 and 2010, any Irish fan would be quick to tell you that it’s been a long, painful decade in this storied war.

Despite its status as one of the preeminent destinations in the college game, I’d been avoiding a trip to USC for good reason.  I’ve never wanted to fly across the country to watch the Irish get shellacked in front of 95,000 hostile fans.  At long last, 2012 has been a different story.  Entering the contest at an unblemished 11-0, the Irish were finally fielding a competitive football team again, and, perhaps, one that could finally compete in South Central Los Angeles. This final, giant hurdle stood between the Irish and a date with infamy in Miami for the BCS National Championship.   Sporting a lofty #1 ranking and BCS Title shot on the line, this trip to USC was arguably the most significant game for Notre Dame since Florida State in 1993.   What more appropriate backdrop for my inaugural trip to the Coliseum.

I touch down in LAX airport the Friday after Thanksgiving and the airport is a ghost town.  I make quick work at the rental car counter, and speed a silver Kia rental to our hotel in downtown Los Angeles.   My cohort in this adventure – Dylan, the ever urbanite Manhattan resident, had curiously picked a hotel in downtown Los Angeles despite scores of beachfront options overlooking the postcard sunsets of the Pacific Coast.  Evidently his pasty, Northeast skin had revolted at the thought of staying near sun and sand. Fresh of a week long vacation stint in El Salvador, I’m sporting a glorious tan, but the beaches of Santa Monica would have to make due without my bronze magnificence.  To his credit, however, Dylan has a knack for showing up for the big games.  He was with me for the epic #1 LSU vs #2 Alabama game last year and now found himself along for the ride at the biggest Irish game in a quarter century.

Saturday morning wakes to a typical Southern California morning, sunny and clear with a brilliant blue sky overhead, a welcome respite from the Midwest gloom of late November.  Donning shorts and flip flops after thanksgiving, one could get used to this climate.  We lope the Kia onto Interstate 710 South, skirting the serpentine concrete confines of what little remains of the LA River – a meager brown trickle down the center of a grey, lifeless expanse.  Bored after a season of highway driving, visions of the opening chase scene from Terminator 2 flash through my mind.  I imagine careening the silver rocket off the nearest bridge into the concrete chute below, swerving and splashing through the spray at 100mph, firing shotgun blasts out the sunroof at evil cyborg pursuers.

But we’re headed to Compton, and that’s a gun toting adventure of its own.  We cruise past exits for Rosecrans and Compton Blvd, passing by handfuls of churches and barred window liquor stores on the way to Long Beach Blvd. With the top down and a few hydraulic switches, we’d be in an Ice Cube rap video.  Thus far, I’d even have to say, today was a good day.  Unlike the esteemed rapper, however, I fully intend to eat hog – mountains of BBQ in fact.

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Without incident, we arrive at our stop: Bludso’s BBQ.  Started by transplanted Texan, Kevin Bludso, the non descript Compton fixture is rumored to have some of the best cue’ in Southern California.  After surveying the puffing black iron pit in the parking lot, the enticing waft smells promising, and we huddle into the tiny storefront to place our order.  A few minutes later, they push our tray through the sliding glass service windows, and we retreat to a picnic table in the alley for a carnivorous breakfast.  Unwrapping the foil feast, our picnic table is heaped with slabs of pork ribs, beef ribs, fiery red sausages and smoky beef brisket.  While it’s not up to Central Texas standards, it still has the hallmarks of proper BBQ, and we devour the smoky protein before hustling north towards the USC Campus.    

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With the BBQ situation worked out, we jump into the Kia and chirp out.  Streaking onto the highway like a silver comet, our progress is quickly halted by a five mile stretch of infamous LA traffic.  After an exhausting thirty minutes of choking down smog, we limp off the 110 highway and slip into the Department of Motor Vehicles parking lot on Hope Street, an insider tip from my friend Larry.  A haggard looking vagrant taps on the drivers window and informs me it’s $40 to park here.  Wearing no orange vest, uniform, or identification of any kind, I’m confident it’s a complete scam.   But this is South Central Los Angeles after all, and I quickly realize I’m not paying for a parking space.  I’m paying for the privilege of not having my windows smashed.  Ever the negotiator, I offer him twenty dollars for the parking spot, making my donation to his general alcohol fund in exchange for an extorted modicum of security

We walk across the street to the half full parking lot of Mercado La Paloma.  The hot asphalt is shaded with a handful of cardinal and gold tents, and I struggle to fight back my gag reflex.  We’re greeted by my friends Larry and Katie. Both grad school chum from Notre Dame, we’d shared more than a couple of beers together at some rowdy tailgates I’d hosted from the back of my Dodge Ram pickup during our two year stint in South Bend.  With a new baby at home in San Diego, Larry and Katie had made the short drive up the coast for the afternoon to take in the epic Irish contest.

They welcome us to a USC friends’ tailgate, and wearing a bright green shamrock t-shirt, I’m nervous about how these sinister Trojans might respond to an infiltrator recklessly quaffing their beer and grabbing fistfuls of any snacks I can get my hands on.  Despite my preconceived notions of uppity Southern California tailgate spreads consisting of a cornucopia of lettuce wraps, wheatgrass smoothies and hummus – they actually have real food here and, delightfully, fizzy yellow light beer.  What’s more, everyone is actually nice – welcoming in fact.  They must be plotting something.  I survey the parking lot for makeshift weapons should the need arise.  A tent leg, if broken off properly, could make a nice spear.  Dylan will have to fend for himself once they jump us…

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On top of being confoundingly nice, this USC crowd is knowledgeable to boot, which is completely ruining it for me.  I’d always envisioned SC fans as the front running bandwagon types. With the Trojans already sporting a few losses, I’m surprised these guys even bothered to show up.  These USC loyalists are confusing me. Wires are short circuiting in my brain with this sudden influx of new information, politeness and actual fandom.  Or perhaps it’s the 12 pack of Busch light I’ve downed.  Either way.  These vile, gutter trash fans are supposed to represent the axis of evil in my mind, yet here they are shotgunning beers with me.  I still won, of course, but the point is that they’re making it impossible for me to hate them.  Perhaps I should hate them for that instead…

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After a few hours soaking in the parking lot atmosphere, we make our way towards the stadium.  I make one final assault on the cooler before leaving, stuffing my pockets with a few cold ones for the inevitable agonizing walk to the stadium.  The sidewalks are flooded with hordes of slow walkers, all lethargically crawling towards the campus at a break neck, open mouthed, Wal-Mart shopper pace.  But the scene on the Exposition Park lawn outside the stadium is impressive.  The grounds are suffocated with tents and revelers, concession stands, and the usual serpentine port o potty lines of heavy consumption.  From the looks of the ample green shirts and pasty complexions, the Notre Dame fan contingent is well represented here too.  With the Irish in the hunt for a BCS National Title berth, clearly a few old ND hats were dusted off to show up for the historic contest.

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Finding our seats in the cavernous LA Coliseum, the space immediately impresses.  It is an absolutely massive facility; our flimsy plastic chairs in the 50th row are barely halfway up the towering rows of the concrete bowl.  I’ve been to the “Big House” before, and the Coliseum feels even larger than that.  If they were to fill the South end of the stadium with seats, the place could probably hold 120,000 fans.  As it stands the 93,607 fans on this night made it the largest venue on my schedule this season.   While arguably the second most renowned stadium in the LA Metro area, behind the Rose Bowl perhaps, the Coliseum is not without a history of its own.  Featured in countless movies and host to all manner of huge sporting events through the years, it remains the only stadium in the world to host two separate Olympic games, in 1932 and 1984.  In fact, the Olympic Cauldron perched atop the East façade still burns during the fourth quarter of each Trojan home game.

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As we settle into our seats, “Tommy Trojan” – the Roman Centurion garbed USC mascot – prances out onto the field mounted on “Traveler” a pure white Andalusian horse as part of Southern Cal’s ceremonial entrance.  Shortly after, a slick pregame video featuring USC football players posing for the camera flashes across the jumbotron.  The blustering crowd, perhaps up to 20% Irish given the high stakes contest, takes its feet as the football team streaks out of the tunnel.  Players run drills, hooting and hollering at one another across the green fold.  The song girls prance away on the sidelines listlessly in their pleated skirts and classic varsity sweaters, easily most talented group of cheerleaders in College Football.   The Coliseum turns electric in the dry SoCal night.

As the game kicks off, the Irish immediately take charge.  Asserting themselves on the ground, running back Theo Riddick carves up the Trojan defense.  He rushes for the sole Irish touchdown in the first quarter, tallying 146 yards of rushing on the day.  Irish Freshman quarterback Everett Golson plays efficiently, tossing safe sideline routes and converting a few key third down completions.   But the Irish offense is hamstrung in the red zone, routinely stalling inside the 20 yard line and settling for field goals.

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The culprit is a baffling empty backfield offense the Irish employ inside the 20 yard lines, removing the threat of their two talented running backs (Theo Riddick & Cierre Wood).  I scream across the cavernous Coliseum at head coach Brian Kelly in frustration, drawing glares from the detached USC faithful around me.  But the Trojan team is a nefarious bunch, and only touchdowns can satisfy 10 years of pent up frustration and heartache.  I don’t want to merely win, I want their throat.  My cries go unnoticed by the Irish coaching staff, and place kicker Kyle Brindza gets a leg workout as a result, booting five field goals on the night against six attempts. 

My fears come to bear late in the fourth quarter.  Despite handily beating the Trojans on both sides of the ball, the Irish cling to a paltry 9 point lead with six minutes left on the clock.  The game – still nervously in question.  Visions of 2005, Notre Dame’s soul crushing last second defeat to USC, flash through my mind.  The last decade of mediocrity brings out the cynic in me.  With a BCS National Championship berth on the line, visions of an epic meltdown race through my mind.

After a blistering kick return that quite nearly broke for a touchdown, USC starts with the ball near the 40 yard line.  Assuming their offensive set, the Trojans immediately streak another 53 yards down the field on a crisp throw to standout receiver Marquise Lee.  The aloof Southern Cal faithful jolt to their feet in excitement, haughty swagger renewed.  A lump forms in my throat as the rest of the Irish crowd is hushed.  They’ve nearly gone the length of the field in two plays.  After a few penalties and some shuffling, it’s 1st and goal on the Notre Dame one foot line.  The Trojans hav

4 plays to punch in the easy score.

But then it happens.

Boasting the stoutest scoring defense in the country, this is no ordinary Irish squad. This is a band of warriors. Battle hardened, they’d already proven their mettle in a heroic overtime goal line stand against Stanford.  As the home crowd hushes for their team, we scream ourselves hoarse towards the Irish defense stretched across the goal line directly below.  For three straight plays the Trojans run headlong into the teeth of the imposing Notre Dame front seven.  For three straight plays they are rebuffed.  The Irish refuse an inch.  Finally, on fourth down, with the game on the line, the Trojans take to the air.  USC freshman quarterback Max Wittek scrambles, then fires a pass into the endzone that is bobbled for a moment, then dropped by tight end Soma Vainuku into the red turf below.  In a historic goal line stand, the Notre Dame defense holds.  The warriors have become legends.

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The Irish are going to the National Championship.

And with my flights and hotel room already booked nervously before the game, I’ll be joining them…

See you in Miami.

Thanks to my friends Larry & Katie – always great to catch up with you guys, and great to finally see you on the West Coast!

Thanks as always to my friend Dylan for showing up for the big ones.  Let’s see what 2013 has in store for us…

Special thanks to my friend Tyler for helping us out with some tickets to the game – hopefully next time you can get some tailgating in!

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Hollyhock House

In addition to the splendor of College Football games this fall and reams of indulgent food along the way, another interesting sub thread to our travels has been the pursuit of great architecture.My architectural passion still burns strong, and with little effort we have been able to experience a few prominent examples of great American works of architecture.L.A. presented us with another such opportunity.

Nestled within the vast sprawl of Los Angeles lies an unassuming architectural jewel seemingly overlooked by many L.A. denizens.While most people looking for great works of architecture in the city would opt for wider publicized landmarks such as Richard Meier’s GettyCenter or Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, a less obtrusive example lies tucked into an old olive grove in East Hollywood.Built in 1921 for Aline Barnsdall is the renowned “Hollyhock House” designed by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright.Hollyhock is easily Wright’s most acclaimed west coast structure, and we obliged for a visit.

Like all Wright houses, Hollyhock has required extensive maintenance and restoration in order to keep it stable.From the beginning the house leaked considerably, and Barnsdall promptly donated the structure to the City of Los Angeles shortly after construction.The restorations continue to this day, but Hollyhock is mostly restored and open for tours.

That said, Hollyhock is still an exquisite showcase of Wright developing his own unique Southern California style, and draws cues from Mayan influence.We see many of the hallmarks of a Wright house at work here, including the sprawling floor plan and tensive connection between indoor and outdoor living separation.The spectacular living room is a breathtaking space highlighted by the moated fireplace, monolithic mantelpiece and replete with original Wright designed furniture.Finally, the inspirational “Hollyhock” stylized pattern permeating the design is an exquisite example of Wright’s excruciating attention to detail, and probably one of his most famous decorations.


One of the unfortunate regulations at the Hollyhock House is that interior photography is prohibited.I have encountered this inane practice before at some other Wright houses, and sadly that same misguided logic is at play here as well.So I apologize for the lack of interior shots, please be sure to write your Congressman.

Special thanks to my sister Rebecca for making the trek up to L.A. and chauffeuring us around for the better part of the weekend.It was great to have you along on a handful of activities and hopefully you’ve recovered from some of the food your brother subjected you to.

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El Tarasco and the hunt for the elusive California Burrito…

Sunday before we left, I had some unfinished business finding some of my favorite Southern California chow.I was on a mission for a California Burrito.A California burrito, for those of you unfamiliar, is a four dollar tortilla conduit pipe full of steak (usually of questionable origin and quality), overflowing with sour cream, cheese, guacamole and finally…..french fries.The french fries are the operative ingredient here, as they displace traditional beans and rice, and make it the unique SoCal delicacy that it is.In my opinion, whatever visionary genius first decided to put French fries in a burrito should be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, or at least a complimentary set of Sham-wow’s.

I had discovered this heavenly delight in San Diego between bouts of unsuccessful surfing attempts, and promised myself that any return trips to California would include at least one of these prodigious gut bombs.Despite its namesake and much to my chagrin, however, the concept of a “California Burrito” seems to elude the entire City of Angels.After a handful of puzzled looks from some of our resident L.A. experts when I inquired about it, they pointed us in the direction of a quintessential beach dive Mexican joint called “El Tarasco”.We were assured us that if any place had a California Burrito they would.

They didn’t.

Despite the lack of a California Burrito, they still served up some admirable food.

El Tarasco, which translated means “The Tarasco” is what you would consider classic beach dive Mexican.Located a stones throw from the Pacific Ocean in Manhattan Beach, the colorful restaurant features little more than a kitchen and a handful of countertop seats.The no frills, galley like interior puts you up close and personal with all the action going on at the grill and you are never more than a subtle nod away from the cook/waitstaff.It keeps the service quick and efficient, and I plowed through a couple baskets of homemade tortilla chips before they could serve up my burrito.

The burrito itself is served “wet” style, which means slathered in sauce and designed to be consumed in a high society manner: with a knife and fork.It might not be a Cali Burrito, but it’s messy and mysterious (that’s a good thing), and for six bucks on a Sunday morning it sure eats pretty good.

(Yes I finished it before you ask…)

The drive down the pacific coast a few miles away isn’t too shabby either.

The hunt for the California Burrito will be continued next year….

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In & Out Burger

During our trips this fall we have done our best to ferret out some of the finest in authentic roadside cuisine.Out travels have exposed us to a breadth of simple, approachable food, and as a rule we eschewed chain restaurants at every turn.

There is one such exception to be made for that rule, however, the famous California institution known as In & Out Burger.In & Out is unique among burger chains in that they are exclusive to California (only recently having opened a handful of locations in neighboring states) and none of their locations are more than a day’s drive from their headquarters in Irvine, CA.The 240+ restaurants were family owned until 2006 and they have never franchised.Furthermore, they pride themselves on using only the freshest of ingredients.Their burgers and fries are never frozen, the vegetables are fresh and the shakes are made with actual ice cream. For these reasons, In & Out stands as an anomaly among fast food burger chains and they have built themselves a cult following because of it.

Their blindingly uncluttered menu board reflects this dedication to simple, timeless drive thru classics.Burgers, fries, shakes and soda – that’s it.

While some purists may still snub their nose at chain fare of any form, as Theodore Donald “Donny” Kerabatsos so eloquently put it:

“Those are good burgers Walter”.

And I concur. Following the NC game we promptly made our way to In & Out for a well deserved post game feast. I ordered up a classic double-double “animal style”, fries and a chocolate shake.For the uninitiated that translates to a double burger, double cheese, with extra pickles, extra sauce, and fried onions.This was a simple yet classic combo that was the perfect nightcap for an exhilarating day.Forgive my lack of usually detailed photography, but this little treat lived a short, albeit delicious life.

For the astute readers out there, you may notice the lack of any mention on the In & Out Burger menu to the term “Animal Style” and you would be correct.One of the beautiful nuances of In & Out is their non posted “secret menu”.This is basically a second language for regulars to customize their burgers off the menu.As a marketer, I think it is a phenomenal example of building a “tribe” mentality among your most ardent followers.And I pride myself on going “animal style” whenever I order at In & Out.

For you newbies out there, I’ve taken the liberty of posting their secret menu so you can talk the talk with the rest of the skate shoe wearing SoCal regulars.

Burgers

  • Veggie Burger: A hamburger with extra tomatoes instead of meat
  • Extra Toast: This order toasts your bun a little bit more than usual making it extra crispy
  • Protein style: Protein style removes the bun and wraps your burger in lettuce like a burrito.
  • Grilled Cheese: A bun, tomatoes and onions, if you want them, grilled with melted cheese.
  • Flying Dutchman: For the ultimate meat eater. No bun, no veggies, just two beef patties and two slices of cheese.
  • Double meat burger: a double double without the cheese.
  • Animal style: makes any burger come with extra pickles, extra sauce, grilled onions, and a mustard cooked patty.
  • 3 by Meat: three beef patties and no cheese.
  • 2 by 4: a double double with two extra slices of cheese. Not for the weak hearted.
  • Chopped Chilies: This adds diced jalapenos to any burger
  • Mustard grilled patty: ask for this and they will spread your patty with mustard before grilling it.
  • No Salt: you wouldn’t think that this would apply to a burger but it does. In-N-Out patties are heavily salted, ask for no salt and you will get a much healthier and fresher tasting patty.

Fries

  • Fries animal style: an order of French fries drenched in cheese, grilled onions, and special sauce (a thicker thousand island dressing)
  • Fries Light: French fries taken out of the fryer a little early. These are a little bit raw on the inside and less crispy.
  • Fries Well-Done: The opposite of fries light. This order leaves your fries on the fryer extra long, making them really crispy and oily.
  • Cheese Fries: Fries with melted cheese on top

Drinks

  • Neapolitan shake: All the milkshake flavors swirled together, vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.
  • Root Beer Float: Half vanilla milkshake and half root beer soda.
  • Choco-Vanilla Swirl: A chocolate milkshake swirled in with a vanilla milkshake
  • Lemon-up: Lemonade and seven up mixed together.
  • Large and extra large shakes: if you ask for a large shake they’ll give you a shake in a medium sized soda cup and extra large in a large soda cup.
  • Tea-Ade: An Arnold Palmer. Half iced tea and half lemonade.

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