On The Ground, Day Two: Raining Whiskey From Very Far Away

In which the new food editor wanders around his brand-new home and eats whatever strikes his fancy…

I’d done just about as much time sitting behind a desk as I could. I’d filled out paperwork, tried (and failed) to memorize a dozen new phone numbers and passwords, made potentially life-altering decisions about medical coverage, accidental death and dismemberment insurance and what I want it to say on my business cards (Jason Sheehan: Amateur Pie-Eating Champion, ex-Fry Cook, Professional Sonofabitch), and I’d had enough. Officing has never been my strong suit. There always seems to be something more interesting, more vital, more not-sitting-on-my-fat-ass-and-staring-at-a-computer-y that I could be doing. There was a whole city out there filled with fried chicken, dumplings, dirty-water hot dogs, tacos, cheesesteaks, ice cream and foie gras, and I’m stuck in here trying to figure out withholding allowances? Fuck that. It was time to go.

“So what are you going to do now?” someone asked me, standing in the door of my office while I hastily shoved what were probably very important papers into unmarked drawers. And I shrugged, looked around, said, “I dunno. Think I’m gonna go take a walk and see what kind of trouble I can get into.”

I have a system for getting to know any new city I find myself in. And since the unusual geometry of my life thus far has allowed me many new cities on which to practice, it’s a system that I have honed and refined down to three simple steps:

Step 1) Walk.

Pick a direction, any direction, and just walk. It doesn’t matter where you go. A man with no fixed destination can’t ever get lost. Walk until you get tired or hungry or thirsty, and then…

Step 2) Stop.

Look around. See where luck and fate and the Brownian motion of the perpetually dispossessed has brought you. Pick a restaurant, pick a bar, and just walk in–grab a bite, lift a couple pints, have a chat, whatever. And when you’ve gotten your wind back…

Step 3) Walk Some More.

If you’re good, you can keep this kind of thing up for weeks or months without ever getting bored. And if you’re real good, you can maybe even talk someone into paying you for it, make a living a doing it, and never have to stop.

The system works, often well, sometimes poorly. It was thanks to the system that I ended up accidentally smoking crack in Amarillo, Texas (and yes, I do mean accidentally–the stuff I do on purpose I admit to gleefully and publicly and to the enduring shame of my darling wife). It was the system that caused me to lose an entire hot, lazy day in Albuquerque, New Mexico–walking into a strange dim sum/tiki bar with tuxedoed waiters and a floating island in the middle of the dining room at some point when the sun was high and then not escaping its strange Don Ho gravity until well after dark. It felt like I’d been there 20 minutes, a half-hour tops. But come to find, it’d been 11 hours. I’d spent all my folding money and walked out again having learned valuable life lessons about stealing cars, the difficulties of being in a Polynesian cover band and why one should never try to drink gin with a man who’s a regular at the only tiki bar in the Land of Enchantment.

Totally worth it.

In Denver, the system worked haltingly. I had to be in the right neighborhood. In Seattle, it was perfect–but that’s a city so hateful of cars and drivers that every streetcorner has to offer a Starbucks, a sit-down restaurant of some sort, a store selling smoked salmon and organic trail mix, two teriyaki shops (so the neighbors can argue over which one is better) and a pub serving muddy local microbrews to bearded hipsters and their mangy dogs or every single person in the city would starve to death and die within a week.

And Philadelphia? Well, as with so many things, Philadelphia is different. Difficult. A fella needs a little faith, a little luck here just to get by.

I hit the streets and started walking–moving in ever-widening circles, doubling back, cutting down alleys and trying to follow my gut. The first time I stopped, I found nothing, but tried not to let it get me down. Second time, my choices were a Dunkin’ Donuts, a sad looking vegetarian restaurant doing no trade, and a Dunkin’ Donuts. Not being desperate (yet), I walked on–dreaming now of a cold pint and a sandwich and somewhere to step in out of the rain.

Corollary to Step 1 of the system: The further you walk, the better it’s going to eventually feel to settle down onto a seat or a barstool, to have a pretty girl lean close and ask you what you’d like. Spend long enough walking with no respite and you might fall dangerously in love with any place that offers you a crust of bread and some little comfort, so a man has to be careful. He has to keep his head about him.

The same corollary applies to girls, too. Not applicable here, but I’m just sayin’…

I walked and I stopped, walked and stopped. As the streets unwound beneath me, I began to wonder whether I’d made some terrible mistake or if Center City was just a closed port–shut against outsiders, dimwits and those too stubborn to check a Google map before heading out the front door. I ducked into an Asian market to scrub the rain out of my face and buy a pear. Somewhere on Chestnut, I stood a minute close by the quilted flank of a cart selling noodles, steam laddering up into the air, and breathed deep the smell of hot oil and garlic. And that was when I spotted Devil’s Alley. Good name, I thought. Bound to have a bar. I was sold.

Inside the two-level space, things were jumping. There was a wait at the door and a crowd at the bar and the smell of barbecue drifting over the odor of damp office workers wolfing down chicken wings, fat burgers and three-beer lunches. “Is it always this busy?” I asked the kid working the door, and he looked around.

“It isn’t busy,” he said. “It’ll just be a couple of minutes.”

Devil’s Alley offers barbecue on the menu–in slider form, as brisket and pulled pork and St. Louis ribs with sides and the option to have them served naked (no sauce, no nothin’), which is the only way good ribs should ever be served. Like an idiot, I went for the pulled pork sandwich because A) it was there and B) I am incapable of refusing barbecue of any variety when it is available. Tragically, this barbecue was an embarrassment to the term–a sloppy mess of textureless pork drowned in a sauce that tasted of melted lollipops, ketchup and cayenne. There was coleslaw (served on the side, in a laughably tiny souffle cup) that was like a minimalist’s interpretation of shredded cabbage, Miracle Whip and vinegar all sketched in air. The bun was good, but that’s the one part of a pulled pork sandwich that ought to be bad. Generic white bread from the Piggly Wiggly down the way is the preferred vehicle. But any crappy, formless slabs of bleached and pasty bread will do. Put your BBQ on a fancy bun and all you’re doing is putting on airs. Or trying to subliminally tell me that your ‘cue isn’t good enough to stand up on its own which, in this case, was absolutely true.

But hey, at least the beer was cold and I was out of the rain. I rested my feet and picked at the barbecue with a fork and watched the overflow crowds ebb as the afternoon drew down. Finally, I followed them out, kinda wishing I’d stopped at that first Dunkin’ Donuts after all, but still hoping for a little late-inning luck to see me through. I was willing to hang tough, to stick with the system. And good for me that the food gods apparently dig that kind of dedication because after passing by Smith & Wollensky (good steaks, sure, but at $10 just for a plate of french fries, a bit dear even for a guy with an expense account) and Alma de Cuba (looked good, but not open at the hour I passed by) and turning my back on about 18 more Dunkin’ Donuts (and one Krispy Kreme with a countdown to a May opening running in the window), I ended up around 20th and Sansom, ready to lick the glass at Tinto before realizing that, right next door, Village Whiskey was open and serving.

Oh, Village Whiskey… Where you been all my life? Remember that thing I said above about girls and love and the distance a man might sometimes have to walk? Yeah, screw all that. 4 ounces of brain lubricant and an order of french fries done in duck fat (which, I have to admit, are never as good as you think they’re going to be) were enough to convince me that I’d found my new home-away-from-home and that it was going to take either a deadline or two big guys with crowbars to remove me. Lucky for me, the deadline came up first, but still…

There are two things that Village Whiskey has going for it that won my heart, both of them coming in a bottle:

The first, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey–a small-batch American whiskey from a micro-distillery in Denver. And by small-batch, I mean tiny. An entire week of their production (12 barrels) is what some of the big distillers would make in five minutes. And the result is a rich and powerful whiskey with a serious burn, best enjoyed with just a couple drops of water. Or one ice cube if you drink fast. If I try hard, I can bring mine down to a point–drinking exactly as fast as the ice melts into the liquor.

“That’s a nice trick,” said the barman when he saw me taking the single cube down at a sharp angle.

“Lot’s of practice,” I told him.

I drink Stranahan’s because it reminds me of being back in the mountains, because it’s rare to find it outside the western states, and because it’s good. “Rare to see this bottle on a menu on the East Coast,” I told the bartender.

“Yeah, we try to get you nice things,” he said, grinning.

“And don’t think I don’t appreciate that,” I replied.

The Stranahan’s was also significantly cheaper than the second reason why Village Whiskey won me over: The bottle of Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve hiding up on the topmost shelf.

Jameson RVR is, to put it simply, the single greatest whiskey I have ever tasted. And I have tasted my fair share of whiskey. The history of it is amazing (port casks from Oporto, the eldest grains and finest Irish pot-still, 25 years or more spent sleeping in the casks, undisturbed by man or beast–a phenomenal investment in time and money by the good people at Jameson) and the flavor nearly indescribable–so smooth and deep and polished that it’s like swallowing liquid velvet, like breathing smoke, like drinking a perfect image of what whiskey at its best could possibly be.

The price tag for this indulgence at Village Whiskey? $70 per two-ounce jiggered pour. And when I asked the barman (half-jokingly) how well it’d been selling, he looked me dead in the eye and said that the house was currently on its fourth bottle without a drop wasted.

“Is it okay if I just move in here?” I asked, dragging a fry through ketchup and tapping my glass for another Stranahan’s. It was four in the afternoon. No reason to stop now.

“You aren’t the first one to consider it.”

God, I’m gonna love this town.