Tag Archives: rants

Alternatives to Panera Bread (Which I Still Hate)

Locro de papas, de mi casa

Since I posted about how much I despise Panera Bread, I’ve gamely attempted to try their food again. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked. Every time I go in there, resolute in my decision to finally slurp up a bowl of soup, the indignity of it all just overwhelms me. I cannot pay almost five dollars for a ladleful of mediocre soup. For five dollars, I can make my own damn soup – five times as much as Panera’s serving offers – and it will taste infinitely better. So I leave, empty belly intact.

Last night, Xavier and I went to Hartsfield International Airport to hang out for a while. Not because we’re terrorists getting the lay of the land, or because we particularly enjoy riding Marta. It was because our friends were in town. Catae and Andre had a layover en route to their fabulous vacation, and we were very excited to see them for the first time since the summer.

It was a little bit like that movie “The Terminal,” I’d imagine, although I’ve never seen the movie. Xavier and I couldn’t go past security without boarding passes, so our friends had to come out to the atrium. After a while of chatting out there, we were somewhat hungry. There has been a lot of noise lately about airport food increasing in quality. Atlanta is apparently adding fine-dining restaurants for classy travelers. When you’re stuck in the atrium, though, these places are not options. After surveying the fast-food options, it became clear that the only reasonable place for us to dine was the Atlanta Bread Company.

The Atlanta Bread Company is a local rip-off of Panera Bread. It’s nearly identical from the business model (order at counter while being deluged with display of shiny pastries) to menu (you-pick-two served with a chunk of baguette ring a bell?). I was hungry and the only other option was Panda Express, so I decided to swallow my pride, hoist my sense of wonder, and check it out.

I settled on the you-pick-two, and the only obvious choices were French onion soup and a California avocado sandwich. The cashier seemed a little confused throughout the ordering process, so it was hardly surprising when my sandwich came out on the bread that Xavier wanted, and Xavier’s bread was completely wrong. Regardless, I opened my mouth and tried to judge the food on its own merit.

The baguette served with the meal was flavorless and cottony. There was no textural contrast between crust and crumb. Winner? Panera.

French onion soup? Passable. A little too salty, a little light on onion. It had body, but not too much. The Asiago cheese garnish, like that at any fast-food cafe, melted into the broth and stuck to the bottom of the bowl. Winner? There is none. Panera Bread and Atlanta Bread Company have tied.

My favorite part of the meal was the California avocado sandwich, a vegetarian option. It did not arrive in the condition it had been promised to me. Onion-tomato foccacia had been replaced with Asiago cheese bread, and although I’d requested no onions, a few limp rings lingered between the tomato and provolone slices. But the avocado  was plentiful and perfectly ripe, and its flavor cut perfectly with dill mayonnaise. This bread, unlike the baguette, was perfect. Winner? Atlanta Bread Company. By a long shot.

So in the bracket battle of chain cafe/bakeries, Atlanta Bread Company, because in what could have been a tie, ABC came out on top by feeding me an entire avocado smashed between two delicious slices of bread. A perfectly ripe avocado can beat pretty much anything edible, except perhaps bacon.\

I’m willing to review other establishments that are like Panera or Atlanta Bread Company. Anyone have ideas?

On Learning How to Drive a Five-Speed

My first car… the Toyota on the street, that is.

I’m so jealous of anyone who can drive a vehicle with a manual transmission. If you are one of the lucky few, congratulations: you deserve a high-five and a cookie. For the last few months, I’ve been making my best attempts to join the exclusive club of stick-shifters. The learning experience has been traumatic all the way through.

We started in an empty church parking lot on the west side of Atlanta, conveniently situated on an hill. Since it was Saturday, the lot was empty save for stragglers collecting stray cans from the ground. I knew the basics: start in first, don’t ride the clutch, skillfully maneuver your feet. I also knew the approximate locations of the gears in relation to the shifter, thanks to a high school boyfriend who sometimes let me shift while he worked the clutch. I say ‘sometimes’ because those fun times ended when I accidentally put the car into reverse instead of fifth on the highway. Despite the utter lack of success, from my past experience, I thought learning would be a piece of cake.

The lesson began: turn on the car and get it to move.

“What do you mean I have to remove the clutch slowly?” I screamed by the fifth time the tires screeched, the car rocked, and the engine went dead. “I thought you took your foot off the clutch when you hit the gas!”

Eventually, after stalling almost a dozen times, I got the hang of the footwork. We sputtered and shook as the car shivered into first gear, but it happened. We headed straight across the asphalt. There was just enough time to hit second gear before we reached the edge of the lot.

“Stop! Stop!” begged my instructor. I slammed on the brake. With another mighty shake, the engine stalled. Of course I’d forgotten to hit the clutch.

After an hour of variations on this theme, I could successfully get the car in motion on a flat surface. I could put it into second gear and then come to a stop: my favorite part of the ordeal.

It was time to learn how to start on a hill.

We cruised over to the parking lot’s incline, only stalling once or twice on the way. I stopped, moved my right foot to the accelerator and left to the clutch… and stalled. We slipped backwards down the hill, narrowly missing one of the scavengers. My instructor grabbed the emergency brake and halted us for dear life. I opened the windows and turned off the ignition. We leaned back in our seats, breathing hard with fear (instructor) and frustration (me).

“Hey, wanna buy some walnuts?” asked an unshaven and likely homeless face in the now-open window.

“No, we’re good,” I demurred.

By that time I was completely fed up with driving stick, and decided it would be best to save the rest of the instruction for a new day. The next few lessons were held at night, on the open road. When midnight hit and Atlanta’s Midtown streets were quiet, we stuttered around in a little Honda, brakes squealing and engine rocking. It wasn’t bad. I understood the footwork – sort of – and shifted when told to do so. We even attempted the reverse gear, and despite getting stuck in a parking lot, things weren’t so bad.

Next came a few daylight drives. Supervised, I dutifully drove to work and out to a restaurant. Things were looking up. My instructor managed the emergency brake when we were on a hill and with his help, I avoided murdering anyone. With success came confidence, and with confidence came a longer evening drive to really test my skills. From my Midtown home, I drove onto the highway and up through Buckhead. Shifting like a champion, I offered to show my instructor some really cool houses in the Vinings area. (We both appreciate fine architecture, so it felt like a good idea). As I came to a stop at a traffic light, I noticed that we were on a hill. Going up. And behind me idled a BMW SUV, right at my back bumper and ready to go.

The light changed to green. I rolled backwards. Stalled. Laughed nervously.

After turning on the ignition again, I did the usual: slow lift-off from the clutch, quick slam on the gas. I was nervous and feeling the pressure from traffic idling behind me. We stalled again, the car shaking with indignation and clutch abuse.

Lather, rinse, repeat – five times. Horns honked. The light turned red. The BMW started to drive around me, windows down to extend a hearty curse in my direction. And I had a complete panic attack, so the only logical next step was to vault over the gear shift into the front seat and make my instructor drive me home.

It took a few days before I was ready to try again, but when I did, my instructor was really racking his brain for something that would make me understand what I was doing. Although I could technically operate the vehicle, it wasn’t by feel or intuition, but simply following orders. And then he told me a little trick: when you’re starting, pull your foot just a little bit off the clutch while accelerating, then when you feel the car starting to move forward, ease off the clutch slowly.

For some reason, this was the secret that I needed. But the experience was still so stressful that my instructor took to videotaping my aghast facial expressions as I practiced manipulating the clutch on inclines. So now I’m somewhat capable of driving the thing but it’s still stressful, and the car still shakes sometimes for reasons I can only guess at.

But I’m getting a new car in July when my lease runs out, and you better believe I’ll be trying to find a six-speed!

Worst blogger ever

Atlanta, dusk – my photo

So much for New Year’s resolutions, right? I started this blog to keep up with my writing and motivate myself to keep working out. Now it’s mid-March, two and a half months into 2012. Let’s do a little review:

– I wanted to write. I wrote a lot in January. In February, I got busy and stopped writing. March has been similarly barren thus far. Grade? Fail.

– Exercise. I wanted to work out at least four times a week. In January I faltered. In February, I ran a lot. Then I began experiencing stabbing pain in my ankles, not just during runs but all the time. I stopped running. But we did start rock climbing, and with that, attending an abs/core class at the gym. I can now climb a 60-foot grade 5.8 route with an incline. Not bad for a beginner. Grade? Pass.

– Learning. I wanted my Spanish to improve, my guitar playing to improve, to learn piano, to take more photographs, to apply to grad school. Well, it’s embarrassing to admit that I haven’t put much effort into any of that. Grade? Epic fail.

I could come up with any excuse in the book to explain how poorly I’ve been doing with my goals. But the truth is, it’s poor time management coupled with constant exhaustion. If we climb four times a week, then come home to prepare and eat dinner, I’m completely spent and will pass out on the couch by 11:30 at the latest. I must be awakened and dragged to bed, lest I spend all evening curled into a back-tweaking crescent shape against the angle of the couch. Also, we’ve been on a mission to eat at home as frequently as possible. There’s no excuse not to: I can cook, and it makes much more financial sense for us at the moment. But food preparation, and then cleaning the kitchen, takes more time and energy. It’s worth it, but between a full day at work, exercising, and then making dinner? There’s not much time for anything else.

Things are somewhat frustrating on the exercise front at the moment. I’ve been working out hard, putting on tons of muscle, and eating very carefully, but I’m stuck in that awkward stage that’s in between muscle addition and fat burning off. So the scale hasn’t changed a bit. My clothes aren’t fitting better yet. I’m trying not to be discouraged, but it’s hard to stay positive when I feel like my hard work hasn’t paid off. I am trying to focus on the fact that I feel stronger, better. And I know that muscle weighs more than fat, so the fact that the scale has stayed the same while my arms are jacked and a serious six-pack has taken up residence under my belly fat means that I have to have lost something. But it’s tough.

On a brighter note, climbing is awesome. I’ve been having so much fun! It’s so incredible to think about how far we’ve come in just a month. When we first set foot in Stone Summit, we were limited to the bouldering room. Bouldering is ropeless climbing, where the climber follows routes set along a 10-15 foot wall. It’s highly dependent on endurance and brute strength, and you spend a lot of time using your arms to hoist yourself up and do crazy moves across the wall. The routes are rated in difficulty from V0, which is basically a staircase set onto the wall, to much harder ones (V14, I think is the toughest). As the route difficulty increases, the holds are smaller, farther apart, harder to grasp, and set onto tricky slopes.

Where we started

At first, I could barely ascend a V0. It wasn’t so much the difficulty of the route that held me back. My issue was mostly in the comfort level of the climb, and my fear of heights. When you’re scared of heights, leaving the ground in any capacity is a challenge!  But I kept at it, and eventually I was able to reach the top of the wall and scamper down quickly.

After a couple of weeks, Xavier and I took a belaying class so we could learn how to top-rope and climb on the larger walls in the gym. Ever since, we’ve been having a blast. This type of climbing requires more endurance than brute strength, so there are many more options for us. We started on the easy walls, just to get the feel for it. Now, we’ve progressed to some of the more challenging routes. As I climb, I’m realizing that I’m doing things that I couldn’t do last month – lift my entire body weight with one arm, for example. I feel much more comfortable on the wall, and am having a great time. The panic still sets in sometimes, like when I look down from 50 feet up and my arms are so tired that I can barely hang on. But I know that I’m perfectly safe with Xavier belaying me, and that helps me to make it up and reach that last hold. It’s a really cool feeling.

Where we climb now- well, not the upside-down parts yet.

The only problem I’m having with climbing is that my hands are becoming very tough and callused. It’s not exactly conducive to shaking hands, giving massages, or really touching anyone without hurting them. Fortunately, my boyfriend’s hands are the exact same way, so I think he understands.

Does anyone have a story to share about their own mental blocks while exercising?  How do you stay positive when your hard work has resulted in your jeans still feeling quite uncomfortable?

Why I Hate Panera Bread

Panera Soup & Sandwich
Panera chicken noodle soup. image from Flickr by john-pittsburgh

Panera Bread is the absolute worst.

I didn’t always feel that way. The first time I visited one was in Princeton, NJ, and I adored the bread bowl with French onion soup. It felt like an unimaginable luxury: a bowl made of bread! The vessel for deliciousness was also delicious, leaving diners drunk on carbs after stuffing their faces with a rapidly disintegrating bowl. The experience of eating at Panera was exhilarating.
When a Panera outpost finally opened near my house, I was in high school and didn’t have my driver’s license yet, so I only went on rare occasions. It was always a delicious treat. Although I eschewed the bread bowl on most visits, preferring to leave the restaurant not feeling like I’d eaten an elephant, I loved the “You Pick Two” combination. Often I’d indulge in a delicious dish of salad. Paired with creamy chicken soup, or my standby French onion, the meal was an affordable way to feel like a classy grown-up.
Then a few things happened that began to taint my love for Panera. One afternoon, I suggested to my mom that we eat there. That was the first mistake. My mom is an incredible cook who takes great pride in dismantling the culinary efforts of others. We both had French onion and after one spoonful of hers, she sniffed derisively and deemed the soup to be thickened with cornstarch.
“Is that bad?” I asked.
“Not necessarily,” she replied, her denial actually meaning that soup thickened with cornstarch is an abomination ranking right up there with genocide and shoulder pads in women’s suits.
To this day, I don’t really know why thickening soup with cornstarch is bad. I happen to make a corn-poblano chowder that’s healthy precisely because I thicken it with cornstarch and not cream. But that day planted the first seeds in my mind that Panera might not be the wood-paneled, lushly upholstered garden of dreams that I’d always imagined it to be.
Next, some of my friends ended up getting jobs at Panera and their reports from the kitchen were less than appealing. Soups, they claimed, came to each store in huge freezer bags, which were thawed and served as-is from the corporate kitchen. I’d always pictured my Panera meals crafted by cheerful elves slicing onions and tending to giant vats of soup with overgrown spoons, so this image came as a surprise. It pained me to imagine my Panera meal stripped of handcrafted love, born of a huge industrial factory.
When I moved to the desolate tundra of upstate New York for college, my opportunities to eat Panera were limited. But on the few occasions that I did indulge, I couldn’t help but notice that each bowl of soup was flavorless, overly salty, and greasy and left me feeling uncomfortably full. When I ordered salad, the leaves were wilted. Tasteless strips of chicken had the funny texture of sponges. Strawberries were still partially frozen. Fried noodle strips outnumbered everything else. I started to feel ambivalent about Panera.
A few months ago, I moved to a house that’s very close to a strip mall. There are many worthwhile vendors in that strip mall. To name a few, we’ve got Boardwalk Burgers, which serves Georgia grass-fed beef and double-fried spuds. Ansley Liquors, serving your booze with a side of hilarious hand-written signs. The list goes on. Unfortunately, occupying a storefront like a blight among the gems, is a Panera outpost.
I’ve gone there a few times recently, in need of a quick bite to eat. And somehow, no matter how hungry I am, I can’t bring myself to purchase anything at Panera. Reading the menu just makes me angry. For a cup of mediocre soup, they charge $4.79. Almost five dollars! For spongy old chicken and greasy croutons! Every time I’ve walked in and surveyed the menu, thinking I could maybe go for a bowl of soup, I quickly grow disgusted and leave without purchasing anything. 

Complaining is useless without providing an alternative solution. So here’s my alternative solution: you can make your own damn soup. It will taste infinitely better than anything from Panera, it doesn’t require as much effort as you think it would, and it’s practically free.

my chicken soup, practically free
Recipe to follow.
In the meantime, please don’t support Panera. They are taking advantage of people who don’t realize how inferior and overpriced their product is.
(However, their bread is pretty good. I’ll give them that).